Bearded Irises:  The Rainbow of the Garden

Irises by Vincent Van GoghIrises by Vincent Van Gogh

I would have a hard time choosing my favorite of all spring blooming flowers.  Daffodils, irises, peonies, poppies, roses, tulips!  Too many gorgeous ones to choose from.  Well, fortunately I don't have to choose, but if I had to, it would probably come down to the iris. The variety of colors, shapes and bloom times is unequaled among perennials.  It is possible to have one kind of iris or another in bloom almost year 'round.  There are many different types and species of irises, and they are found all over the world.  So many, in fact, that it is hard to keep them straight.  But botanists and gardeners agree that the simplest way to categorize them is by type of underground structure from which they grow.  They grow either from rhizomatous tubers or roots, or true bulbs. The irises below are of the rhizomatous or tuberous sorts, and are further broken down into “bearded” or “beardless’ irises.  For "beardless" irises, please see the "Beardless Irises" page.  Please see the "Spring Bulbs" page for irises that grow from true bulbs.

I.  Bearded Irises

Bearded irises are distinguished by having a brush of soft hairs at the back of the falls that direct insects to find the pollen within.  There are several types of bearded irises including our familiar garden bearded (German) irises, the exotic arils, and certain species such as I. pallida, the orris iris, grown for its root used as a fixative in perfumery.

Aril Irises

A large group of bearded irises, the arils, are not as widely grown as the I germanica hybrids. These are desert species thriving in hot, dry climates.  They demand full sun and excellent drainage to prevent rot.   The arils have a touch of the exotic, and have some very unusual flower forms and colors distinguished by dark beards and dark signals on the falls.  Sometimes the standards are large and wide, even larger than the falls, and the falls are typically curled under.  There are many species in the aril group and they are further grouped into Oncocyclus and Regelia species. 

Arilbred irises are hybrid crosses between aril irises and bearded (German) irises.  They constitute a very exciting and beautiful selection of irises for your garden if you can provide the right conditions.  This is a very interesting and rewarding group of irises to grow, but complicated, so for further information, contact these fine organizations devoted to their culture and development.   The Aril Society International, www.arilsociety.org; and the Species Iris Group of North America, www.signa.org.

Arilbrerd Iris 'Rosemohr'Arilbrerd Iris 'Rosemohr'
Arilbred iris 'Walker Ross'Arilbred iris 'Walker Ross'

Bearded (German) Iris Hybrids

Iris germanica, bearded iris hybrids, 3-10.  Everyone's idea of what an iris should be, bearded or German irises are indispensable in the spring garden.  Named for the Greek goddess of the rainbow, bearded irises come in nearly every color, from pure white to nearly black. Pure red is the one color that eludes iris hybridizers.  Growers dig the rhizomes in the summer for late summer and fall planting.  They are best grown in full sun, and benefit from division every few years when the bloom starts to decline.   Bearded irises are further divided into six classifications based on size and bloom time:  Miniature Standard Dwarf Bearded (up to 8” h.), Standard Dwarf Bearded (about 8-16” h.), Intermediate Bearded (about 16-27 ½” h.), Border Bearded (16-27 ½” h. but bloom later than the Intermediates), Miniature Tall Bearded (16-27 ½” h. w/smaller flowers), and Tall Bearded (over 27 ½” h.)   With so many choices, one can have the right iris for almost any situation.

The form of bearded irises has changed over time.  Older, historic irises often have simpler shapes with falls that hang straight down, and standards and falls with smooth or very slightly ruffled edges.  More recent irises are quite different with flaring falls and often have very ruffled standards and falls.  Compare ‘Alcazar’ with ‘Mystic Art,’ for instance.

Iris germanica 'Alcazar' is a tall bearded historic iris dating from 1910.  A violet bitone with soft violet standards and deep violet falls.Iris germanica 'Alcazar,' bitone, tetraploid, Vilmorin, 1910.
Iris germanica 'Amethyst Flame'Iris germanica ‘Amethyst Flame,’ self, tetraploid, R. Schreiner, 1957. Dykes Medal 1963.
Iris germanica 'Autumn Circus' is a tall bearded iris with white standards and falls veined with blue-violet on the edges.  It a rebloomer, too.Iris germanica ’Autumn Circus,’ plicata, reblooms, tetraploid, Hager, 1990.
Iris germanica 'Batik' is a border bearded iris with a broken pattern of purple streaks and splotches of white.Iris germanica ‘Batik,’ broken pattern, tetraploid, Ensminger, 1985.
Iris germanica 'Benton Evora' is lavender-orchid self tall bearded iris.Iris germanica ‘Benton Evora,’ self, tetraploid, C. Morris, 1956.
Iris germanica 'Benton Olive'Iris germanica,‘Benton Olive,’ blend, C. Morris, 1949.
Iris germanica 'Blue Rhythm' is an historic iris dating from 1945.  Elegant blue self.Iris germanica ‘Blue Rhythm,’ self, Whiting, 1945. Dykes Medal 1950.
Iris 'Champagne Elegance' is a tall bearded iris in a lovely color combination of white standards and peachy-apricot falls.Iris germanica ’Champagne Elegance,’ bicolor, tetraploid, Niswonger, 1986.
Iris germanica 'Cinnabar'Iris germanica ‘Cinnabar,’ bitone, Williamson, 1928.
Iris germanica 'Cleo Murrell'Iris germanica ‘Cleo Murrell,’ blend, O. Murrell, 1941.
Iris germanica 'Drama Queen'Iris germanica ‘Drama Queen,’ plicata, tetraploid, Keppel, 2002. Dykes Medal 2011. Wister Medal 2009.
Iris germanica 'Dusky Challenger' is a dark purple tall bearded iris in dark purple.Iris germanica ‘Dusky Challenger,’ self, tetraploid, Schreiner, 1986. Dykes Medal 1992.
Iris germanica 'Edith Wolford' is a tall bearded iris with a lovely bitone combination of soft yellow standards, and soft purple falls.Iris germanica ’Edith Wolford,’ bi-color, tetraploid, Hager, 1984. Dykes Medal 1993.
Iris germanica 'Elizabethan Age' is a tall bearded iris in the luminata pattern. Soft purple standards are edged with apricot; the falls are darker purple with white veining.  The glow comes from the apricot interior.Iris germanica ‘Elizabethan Age,’ luminata, tetraploid, Baumunk, 2005. Wister Medal 2013.
Iris germanica 'Flavescens' is a wild-occurring hybrid discovered by De Canelle.  It is a yellow self with yellow standards and lighter yellow falls,Iris germanica ‘Flavescens,’ self, a wild occurring hybrid, De Candelle, 1813.
Iris germanica 'Florentine Silk' is an award-winning bicolor tall bearded iris with peach standards and lavender falls.Iris germanica ‘Florentine Silk,’ bicolor, tetraploid, Keppel, 2004. Dykes Medal 2012. Wister Medal 2013.
Iris germanica 'Frimousse' is a stunning bicolor of apricot standards and raspberry falls highlighted with an orange-red beard.  Bred by Cayeux in France.Iris germanica ‘Frimousse,’ bicolor, tetraploid, Cayeux, 1999.
Iris germanica 'Golden Panther' is a tall bearded is in a blend of coppers, browns and golds.  Multiple award winner.Iris germanica ‘Golden Panther,’ blend, tetraploid, Tasco, 2000. Dykes Medal 2009. Wister Medal 2006.
Iris germanica 'Jazzed Up' is a tall bearded iris in the amoena pattern with white standards and lavender falls. The white of the standards bleeds into the falls.Iris germanica ‘Jazzed Up,’ amoena (white standards and colored falls), tetraploid, Schreiner, 1994.
Iris germanica 'Kent Pride' is a tall bearded iris in the plicata pattern with chestnut brown standards and falls. The falls have a white splotch surrounded by yellow.Iris germanica ‘Kent Pride,’ plicata, tetraploid, Hutchison, 1958.
Iris germanica 'Laced Cotton' is a tall bearded iris in pure white with very ruffled edges.Iris germanica ’Laced Cotton,’ self, tetraploid, Schreiner, 1978.
Iris germanica 'Mystic Art' is a tall bearded iris with pink standards and pink/rose falls overlaid with lavender.Iris germanica ‘Mystic Art,’ tetraploid, T. Johnson, 2019.
Iris 'Quaker Lady' is a historic tall bearded iris from 1909.  It is a blend of tannish standards and light violet falls with a distinctive yellow beard.Iris germanica ‘Quaker Lady,’ blend, Farr, 1909.
Iris germanica 'Shannopin' is a bi-color tall bearded iris with pale yellow standards and rose falls.Iris germanica ’Shannopin,’ bi-color, Pillow, 1939.
Iris 'Suky' is a tall bearded iris with white standards flushed with violet and darker violet falls with a distinctive white zone and white beard.Iris germanica ’Suky,’ bi-tone, tetraploid, Mahan, 1988.
Iris 'Total Recall' is a tall bearded iris with ruffled lemon yellow standards and white falls edged with darker yellow, orange beard.  Good rebloomer.Iris germanica ‘Total Recall,’ pale yellow and white, reblooms, tetraploid, Hager, 1992.
Iris germanica 'Vanity' is a luscious pink tall bearded iris with ruffled pink standards and falls and a darker pink beard.Iris germanica ’Vanity,’ self, tetraploid, Hager, 1974. Dykes Medal 1982.
Iris germanica 'Wabash' is a tall bearded iris in an amoena pattern with white standards and rich purple falls with a tiny edging of white and bright yellow beard.Iris germanica ‘Wabash,’ amoena, Williamson, 1936 Dykes Medal 1940.

Bearded iris Species

Iris albicans, cemetery iris, Zones 4-9.  Pure white with yellow beards, I albicans is a natural hybrid of I germanica.  It was commonly used on gravesites in the Middle East, hence the common name, and the tradition was continued when it was brought to the U.S. in the 19th c.  It is early blooming and very robust.

Iris albicans, the cemetery iris, is pure white with soft yellow beard.  Early blooming and tough.Iris albicans

Iris x germanica var. florentina, orris iris, Zones 4-10.  The root of this iris is aromatic with a scent of violets. The dried root has long been used as a fixative in perfumes and potpourris to make the scent last longer.  Interestingly, it is also an ingredient in gin.  Besides that, it makes a lovely addition to the perennial border, blooming in April-May.  The fragrant flowers are white with the palest lavender tint to them, the falls are long and drooping with yellow beards, and rise on stalks to about 24-30." 

Iris germanica var. florentina or orris iris, is a species of with fragrant white flowers with the palest lavender tint to them, the falls are long and drooping with yellow beards, and rise on stalks to about 24-30."Iris germanica var. florentina

Iris pallida var. dalmatica, Dalmatian or sweet iris, Zones 4-9.  This iris is also grown and harvested for its roots to use as a fixative for perfumes and potpourris.  A native of Italy, I pallida has flowers of a rich lavender-blue with a fragrance redolent of grapes.  Grow I. pallida var. dalmatica in your garden for color, scent and a sense of history.

Iris pallida var. dalmatica or sweet iris, is grown and harvested for its roots to use as a fixative for perfumes.  A native of Italy, I pallida has flowers of a rich lavender-blue with a fragrance redolent of grapes.Iris pallida var. dalmatica

Iris pallida ‘Aurea-Variegata,’ is a variegated version that has foliage striped with gold or cream or white.  The flowers are lighter in color than the Dalmatian iris, but they both have the same intriguing grape-like scent.  Marvelous for adding foliage contrast to the garden.

Iris pallida 'Aurea-Variegata' is a variegated version that has foliage striped with gold or cream or white.  The flowers are lighter in color than the Dalmatian iris, but they both have the same intriguing grape-like scent.Iris pallida 'Aurea-Variegata'

Beardless Irises

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