Not Your Grandmother’s Irises

Guest post by “The Bulb Lady” Debbie Van Bourgondien

Mention a grandmother’s garden, and a mental picture inevitably forms. Somehow bearded irises (Iris germanica) always seem to be part of that picture. Perfect flowers for cutting, as showy as orchids, they seem to fit into any kind of grandma’s garden, from the cottagey style that we usually think of in that context to the garden of an Asian grandma who treasures them for the fanlike simplicity of their foliage.

And did you know that many of them are even fragrant?

But Grandma’s irises they usually came in any color you wanted — as long as it was purple. Not so today. Today you can find bearded iris in just about any color (or combination of colors) imaginable, from a pure sparkling white, like “Celestial Flame” to black (Superstition.)

Time for a basic vocabulary lesson here — you may wonder where the “beard” is on these iris, and what I mean by a “fall.”

If you look carefully at an iris you will see that it has 6 petals. Three of them sweep upward, somewhat like a crown. This petal formation is called the standard. Three petals also sweep downward so that they look like they are providing that crown with a base. The downward petals are the falls. Many iris have one color of fall and a different color of standard ? OR the standards, falls or both can display multicolored patterns, different colored edges or simply shadings from deep to light.

Now, if you look carefully at the falls, they will show you a fuzzy sort of (I hate to say “growth” – it sounds so bad!) ? anyway, you’ll see a fuzzy line heading down into the flower’s throats. That is the beard , and it can be any color from orange to the same tone as the falls or standard.

Many bearded iris are two-toned. The rich and exotic ?Supreme Sultan? comes in the hard to find color combination of bright yellow beard and rich mahogany falls. For true delicacy there is ?Hidden World? with pale pink standards and white falls. One of my favorites is ?Batik?, which is a blue and white blend whose petals really do look as if someone had used the ancient batik process to color them. And some are banded ? ?Eastertime?, for instance, is creamy ivory, but has a perfect gold edge around the petals ? almost like a setting for a jewel.

Between the standards and the falls (not to mention that beard!) you have endless possibilities for color blends ? and some iris are REALLY colorful ? Check out ?After the Dawn?, for instance, that has falls in creamy yellow with a white wash, standards in a watercolor-dreamy blend of apricot and violet ? and a deep apricot beard. Or ?Tequila Sunrise?, which has striking yellow-orange standards (they seem to shade from pale to deep tones) and falls that are deep violet but bordered in a toasty color ? gorgeous! So there really is an iris color to suit any sort of garden scheme.

Iris time comes in May and June, after all the spring glories have begun to fade. There is nothing as impressive as a collection of bearded iris ? showy as orchids ? blooming in the sunshine (and they will bloom in part shade, as well!) Not only that ? but you can grow these successfully not only in the north (Zone 4) but in Zone 10! All they really require is well-drained soil.


Bearded iris grow from rhizomes ? when they arrive you will see something looking a bit like a torn potato with buds. From those humble buds the flower and leaves will rise to glory. When an iris is done flowering that part of the rhizome is essentially all used up ? but it doesn’t stop ? instead the rhizome creeps out in all directions sending out more buds and more flowers.

For this reason, it takes only a couple of years to have a really glorious iris bed. Plant the rhizomes in equilateral triangles of three about 24″ to the side. At the base, plant two rhizomes with their roots facing into the triangle; at the point plant one with its roots facing into the triangle. Plant an upside down triangle of the same size next to it. In this way you are getting a good spacing for your plants, and allowing them room to grow. You can plant a whole bed this way and if you pay attention to form, it will not only look lovely, but if you choose colors with care it can look like a living rainbow.

Bearded irises prefer a light but medium rich soil ? they sulk in clay. When you plant them you don’t want to cover the entire rhizome ? some of it should still be visible on the surface of the garden bed. Make sure that they get at least 6 hours of sun a day ? the more sun, the more they flower.

Because they grow so quickly, they will probably need dividing in about three years ? in which case you have lots to share with friends. Or, if as so many people have done, you have become addicted to these beautiful flowers, you can start another iris bed.

These flowers really do look wonderful grown in masses in beds all to themselves. If you can’t bear to devote a whole bed to a one-season flower, fill in with annuals ? the fan-like spears of foliage will look great among mounds of petunias.

But they also look great used like exclamation points in the mixed border. If you want to draw attention to some feature in your garden, plant it near a bearded iris. The leaves will draw the eye right up to what you would like us to notice even if the iris isn’t blooming. Just be sure to leave them plenty of room to expand ? unless, like I do, you enjoy digging up your plants and rearranging them in an endless round of exterior decorating.

The one thing I hear people object to in bearded irises is that the foliage sometimes turns unsightly. This shouldn’t happen if you give the plant plenty of good air circulation and make sure not to overwater it, but not to let it get bone dry. These plants tolerate drought quite well ? but don’t put them through it if you don’t need to. And when you fertilize, DON’T use nitrogen ? or at least use a low ?nitrogen fertilizer. Nitrogen is what leads to most of the problems you hear about with iris – avoid it and yours should sparkle! And if some of the leaves do die back, simply pull them off, or, as so many people like to do, trim the leaves into a fan shape ? they will put forth fresh, new foliage before you know it.

There probably isn’t an easier plant for creating a spectacular display than the bearded iris ? something grandma knew ? and so should you!

Debbie Van Bourgondien and “The Bulb Lady” are one and the same. For over 95 years, the Van Bourgondien family has specialized in providing high quality Dutch bulbs and perennials to discerning gardeners. Visit to get a FREE subscription to their catalog.


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