My Victorian Garden: Growing Heirloom Bearded Iris
Iris Violacea Grandiflora, 1856
Dramatic Antique Heirloom Bearded Irises
Irises are a favorite in our Victorian Garden. This page will introduce you to some of the Antique Heirloom Bearded iris we are growing, their history, and the terminology used to describe these lovely spring flowers.
You'll also find helpful tips and instructional videos about how to plant and grow irises.
Irises are often called "the poor man's orchid" and, after roses, irises are the most popular garden flower in the United States. They are named after the Greek goddess of the rainbow who carried messages between earth and sky.
Antique Heirloom Bearded Iris are sensual, dramatic and, if the scent has not been hybridized out of them, exquisitely scented additions to the perennial garden.
Note: I am aware that any iris over 30 years old is considered an heirloom iris, but this page focuses on older antique iris varieties that might have been planted in the garden of my 1880 Victorian home around the time it was built and during the time the original owners lived there.
Irises Have a Very Long & Colorful History
The iris is an ancient flower. Estimates are that irises have been grown as far back as 7000 BCE. In ancient Egypt, irises were listed as medicinal plants and they are depicted in heiroglyphs and on monuments and tomb walls.
Pictures of irises have also been found in the Minoan Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete and in ancient Persian documents.
The ancient Greeks and Romans used Irises for medicine and were the first to use orrisroot, a powder made from some types of bearded iris rhizomes, to freshen breath and flavor wine, in addition to using it in perfumes. Orrisroot is still used today as a fixative in perfumes and potpourri.
From Dioscorides (who wrote the five volume De Materia Medica almost 2,000 years ago), we learn that irises were also thought to remove freckles, induce sleep, and heal ulcers. Archaeologists tell us that early Christians carved rosary beads out of sweetly scented orrisroot and wore them around their necks. Around 1100 - 1200 CE, the iris, the fleur-de-lys, was adopted as the symbol of France.
More About Growing Antique Heirloom Bearded Iris
Heirloom Bearded irises bloom from April to June. Irises are among the most disease resistant and pest free plants.
Irises will grow in most types of soil as long as they are properly planted and have good drainage. (There's an informative video that will show you how to do that farther down this page.)
Although Antique Bearded irises do multiply, they are easy to divide and are not invasive.
In fact, many antique irises have survived because they were so easily shared and "passed along" to friends and family members. As you might expect, many antique plants still with us today are referred to as Pass-alongs.
The origins of many pass-along irises may never be known for sure, but some have been identified and a few are even available commercially. I am sure there are many others that a lucky few have inherited from an old aunt or grandmother or that they found growing on an old property they purchased.
Tall Bearded Iris Perfection: An Heirloom from 1880 - Hybridized by Barr
Fittingly named, 'Perfection' is a vigorous, beautiful and reliable bloomer. 'Perfection' is a neglecta iris with light lavender standards over rich velvety distinctly white veined (netted) purple falls. The falls have a nice flare that is rarely seen in irises this old and that lends 'Perfection' just the right touch of style. This elegant heirloom iris grows to 30" high and blooms mid-season.
Basic Iris Terminology
(Study hard - there will be a Quiz for extra points)
Bearded iris take their name from the fuzzy caterpillar like hairs along the lower petals. These hairs guide insects toward the pollen. Bearded iris are also generically known as Iris Germanica or German iris, although not all Bearded Iris are necessarily Germanica.
These are some of the most frequently used terms you may come across when reading about or shopping for irises:
Amoena: An iris with white standards colored falls
Beard: The fuzzy attachment at the base of each falls petal
Bicolor: Irises that have lighter standards (the upper petals that stand up) and falls (the lower petals that "fall" downward) in a deeper contrasting color.
Bitone: irises that have standards and falls in the same color, usually with the falls being a darker tone.
Blend: Iris with a combination of two or more colors smoothly or unevenly mixed
Falls: The lower three petals of the iris bloom
Flounces: Appendages extending from the tip of the beard that look like little petals
Hafts: The top part of the falls near the center where the falls connect to the stem
Horns: A spike like extension of the beard that turns upward and disconnects from the falls
Neglecta: An iris in blue or purple bitones with lighter tone standards
Plicata: Darker margins that look stippled, dotted or stitched on falls of a lighter color
Self: Refers to standards and falls in the same color
Signal: A patch of contrasting color surrounding the beard, usually white or yellow
Spoons: Appendages extending from the tip of the beard like spoons
Standards: The three upper petals of the iris bloom that stand erect
Variegata: Yellow or near-yellow standards with darker falls of brown or purple
Iris Germanica 'Mrs. Reuthe'
An Antique Heirloom Iris from 1899
Iris Mrs. Reuthe is a delicately feathered Plicata introduced by Ware in 1899.
This heirloom iris is a diploid with white standards veined and shaded pale lilac blue and white falls frilled in a very pale blue.
Iris Germanica 'Mrs. Reuthe' grows about 24 inches tall and blooms mid-season.
Did You Know?
Irises are Naturally
Deer & Squirrel Resistant
Iris Kochii is a deep blue purple self with a coarse yellow-tipped beard. Iris Kochii is native to Northern Italy and has been cultvated and available in the trade since 1871.
In 1912, the Biltmore Nursery catalog raved about Iris Germanica Kochii, describing it as "Unexcelled in beauty and profusion of bloom" and deserving of "the most widespread planting" because "The flowers are so large, and are borne in such masses, that a clump of them becomes a huge bouquet in May or June."
Iris Germanica Indigo, 1854 - Very Rare and Hard to Find
Iris Germanica 'Kharput' (Prior to 1895)
Collected in Turkey by Barr in 1895, Kharput is named for the village of Harput, in Turkey, where it was discovered growing.
Iris Germanica Kharput is a velvety deep blue-violet purple intermediate bearded iris with a yellow-tipped white beard. It is an early season bloomer and grows to about two feet high.
Iris Kharput is also known as Asiatica, Italia, and Karput.
Iris Germanica Vulgaris, 1753
aka Blue Neglecta
The Anitque Heirloom Iris 'Neglecta' is a naturally occurring European hybrid. There are several cultivars that vary slightly, but all are blue or purple bitones.
In the United States, Iris Germanica 'Blue Neglecta' can be frequently seen growing along roadsides as well as in gardens. These are the irises immortalized in the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. (You can scroll down to see two of his Iris paintings.)
Bearded Iris Germanica 'Blue Neglecta' is an early blooming variety that varies in height from 24 to 36 inches.
What's your favorite heirloom flower?
Which of these Heirloom Flowers Do You Prefer?
How to Plant & Grow Bearded Irises
A Scentimental Pass-Along Heirloom Iris
This iris was given to us by good friends and neighbors who got them from her mother's garden and has a special sentimental meaning for us.
We have brought rhizomes of this beauty with us whenever we moved over the years and it always brings back wonderful memories.
I believe this may be either Iris Odoratissima (prior to 1797) or Iris Pallida Dalmatica (prior to 1600), as it is very similar to some we purchased as that (see photo near top of page). It has a lovely scent and multiplies nicely, enabling us to share it with our new friends and neighbors as well.
The Only Garden Tool You'll Ever Need - For planting, dividing and transplanting irises and more
The Japanese Hori Hori Garden Landscaping Digging Tool is known as "The Swiss Knife for Gardeners." And the one made by Joshua Roth is the best on every score from the way it feels when you hold it to the very sharp edge.
Historic Iris Mexicana (Prior to 1859)
Iris Germanica Nepalensis, 1830
As you might guess, Iris Nepalensis comes from Nepal. The iris is actually much older than the 1830 date, which is the year it wasy discovered by Wallich, who brought it back to England and introduced it to the West.
Iris Nepalensis is also known as Iris Germanica Atropurpurea, Himalayan Iris, Iris Decora Wallich, and Purple King Iris. It is a lightly and pleasantly scented bitone and a prolific bloomer.
No wonder it was Renoir's favorite!
We're planting a lot more
Heirloom Irises and will have
more varieties as they bloom,
so bookmark this page and
be sure to check back!
Early 20th Century Irises
Iris Germanica 'Loreley' - An Historic Bearded Iris from 1909
Iris Loreley was introduced by Goos & Koenemann in 1909. A hardy and drought tolerant intermediate iris, Loreley grows to 20 to 24 inches high. With soft canary yellow standards and velvety purple veined falls edged in yellow, no wonder this captivating bloom was named Loreley.
If this Iris sings to you, perhaps it is because Loreley (or Lorelei) refers to the German equivalent of the sirens who lured Ulysses and his crew in the Odyssey. The Lorelei would perch on cliffs along the Rhine and entice sailors to their doom with their enchanting song.
view quiz statistics
Iris Indian Chief: Introduced by Ayers in 1929
Indian Chief is an unusual "maroon" bitone that will even bloom in considerable shade here in our zone 5 garden. The netted standards are finely edged with a thin line that matches the deep rich velvety falls. It has white hafts and the beards are yellow. An exceptionally vigorous iris that seems to thrive on neglect, Indian Chief is also sweetly scented and a prolific bloomer.
Artwork for Iris Fans
Van Gogh's "Irises, Saint Remy, 1889," shown below, depicts the garden of the hospital where the artist spent the last months of his life.
Suffering from severe depression, Van Gogh (1853 - 1890) believed he could remain sane by painting and continued to do so while hospitalized. Irises, Saint Remy was the first picture he painted as a patient there. In 1987, this painting set a world record by selling for $49 million.
Irises by Van Gogh, Monet, and O'Keefe
Left to right:
Vase of Irises against a Yellow Background by Vincent Van Gogh
The brilliant artwork of post-Impressionist Vincent Van Gogh (1853 - 1890) has had an impact on countless artists and artistic movements. In ten Van Gogh, like Monet, painted outdoors. He had a talent for capturing the subtleties of nighttime light and shadow. Selling only one painting during his lifetime, Van Gogh has endured as one of the last century's most influential artists.
Irises by Claude Monet
Traditional artistic expression was forever altered by Impressionist Movement forerunners including the master painter Claude Monet (1840 - 1925). In order to portray the continually shifting effects of light and color, the Paris-born Monet only painted outdoors, often painting the same subject at different times of day. Influenced by the artistry of Japanese floral screens, his richly colored Irises were painted in his Giverny garden.
Black Iris by Georgia O'Keefe
Groundbreaking Modernist painter Georgia O'Keeffe (1887 - 1986) rejected artistic norms to express her own unique vision. Best known for her flower paintings, O'Keeffe was first inspired by nature while growing up in Wisconsin. O'Keeffe enlarged flowers until they became abstract forms whose sheer size commanded attention. O'Keeffe was the first woman honored with her own exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
More About Irises
Written by Clarence E. Mahan, an internationally recognized authority on Irises. An excellent, well-researched read with beautiful drawings, paintings and photographs. This book is itself a work of art.
Do you grow any antique heirloom irises in your garden?
Are you lucky enough to have inherited a "pass-along" iris?
Do you have a tip about iris care you'd like to share?
© 2012 Chazz