Bearded Iris Flowers – Every Color of the Rainbow

Summary: The bearded Iris comes in many different colors and breathtaking forms, filling our gardens with color from May to June, but the wide variety we have today was not always the case.

Question: I have become fascinated with the Bearded Iris. Do you have any history of the plant? Are the hybrids we see today all from America? Were they plants imported, etc.? Denise, Arnold, Maryland

purple bearded irisPin

Answer: Denise, you can find every color in the rainbow among the many shades and variations of our modern bearded iris. Even jewel tones – amber, topaz, amethyst, ruby, garnet, opal, coral, pearl – names whose very sound and association breathe a touch of fairyland beauty.

The luscious blooms of this hardy plant appear in a multitude of breathtaking forms and colors from May to June, some varieties blooming again in fall. The heights vary from 1′ to 4′ feet tall.

Iris Makes The History Books

But gardeners were not always blessed with so wide a variety. Iris first appeared on the historical scene in an Egyptian tomb bas-relief of 1500 B.C. The form was known as oncocyclus, an iris native to Palestine. 

The Biblical reeds and flags of the river Nile, where the infant Moses was said to have been hidden, were the yellow water iris, now called Iris pseudacorus, and still used around pools and in other moist situations.

In the Middle Ages, iris appeared again as the fleur-de-lis of France, a contraction of “Flower of Louis,” much used in French heraldry. 

An early white form known as Iris albicans was particularly popular with Muslims and was used extensively in ornamenting the graves of their dead.

That iris followed Muslims halfway around the world across northern Africa into Spain and subsequently carried by the Spanish into Mexico and the New World.

Thus the shores of the Mediterranean and the area eastward through Asia Minor into China have provided the ancestors of our modern iris. In the Mediterranean region, iris were grown for their garden value and medicinal purposes.

The powdered root of Iris florentina was highly prized as a perfume in cosmetics and believed to possess certain medicinal properties.

Two Predominant Species – Pallida & Variegata

At that time, there were two predominant species – Iris pallida and Iris variegata. The former was a native of Dalmatia, with tall stems and violet-blue flowers; the latter, a native of the Balkans, shorter-stemmed and with yellow blooms whose falls were striped with brown or purple. 

Iris pallida have given us the lavender tones, the yellows we owe to variegata. Incidentally, Iris pallida dalmatica is known to have been in cultivation before 1600.

It was later cataloged as Princess Beatrice. It can still be found in many gardens – prized not only for its lovely clear lavender color but also its delightful fragrance. 

On the other hand, Iris variegata seems to have disappeared in the mists of time, leaving only its color influence upon later generations of iris.

About the middle of the 19th century, a Frenchman named M. Linton began to breed iris, and in 1840 listed some hundred varieties. 

He was the first to attempt improvement of the iris and a blue and white plicata of his named Mme. Chereau can be found in a few collections. Vilmorin and Millet followed him.

Then around 1900, new and larger-flowered varieties were introduced into England from Mesopotamia and had a tremendous influence in changing the iris into the larger flower we know today.

This work was begun in England by Sir Michael Foster and carried on by A. J. Bliss, whose iris Dominion was the first to have velvety falls. These years mark an important milestone in the history of iris hybridizing.

From these early beginnings came the great work of W. R. Dykes and others who created the iris we know today. Unfortunately Dykes never lived to see his great yellow namesake bloom, but it was titled in his honor by his widow who carried on his work.

Hybrids Come to America

The work then spread to America, where E. B. Williamson and Grace Sturtevant worked contemporaneously with M. Cayettx in France.

Finally, in the 1920s, William Mohr and Sydney Mitchell of California began crossing a tall bearded plicata named Parisiana with the oncocyclus Gatesi.

From this experiment came the famous hybrid Mr. Mohr named for him after his death by Professor Mitchell. The introduction of William Mohr marked another milestone in the history of bearded iris, and its effects stretch far into the future.

There are unlimited possibilities in combining the exotic beauty of oncocyclus iris with the sturdiness of the tall bearded sorts to produce a new race of hybrids more beautiful than anything already achieved.

The Mohr hybrids and other oncobreds are legions and ever-increasing, supplying new and unbelievable colors in the iris rainbow. One of the new ones was Greenmohr, a variety with definitely chartreuse tones.

Professor Mitchell’s death was a great loss to the iris world, but his work was carried on by Clarence White, Tom Craig, and others who each year created new and more startling hybrids.

Much more, of course, could be said about the fascinating history of bearded iris and the many great names associated with it. But, instead, with this background in mind, I would like to tell you about the exciting new colors in bearded iris you can choose from today.

We who love iris are proud of the cavalcade of color our favorite flowers now offer gardeners. And if these thoughts of mine have awakened in you the desire to bring some iris into your garden, I shall feel that, in my small way, I have served the flower well!

by C Tempest