Tucked away in forgotten corners of many gardens are plants of the butterfly iris.
Given scant attention and care, these plants faithfully reward their owners with a short but glorious bloom period every spring.
For some decades, the butterfly iris, or spuria, has been a neglected member of the iris family.
But this will no longer be true when the new, breathtaking varieties are more widely grown and enjoyed.
Butterfly “Spuria” Iris
Butterfly iris is native to Asia and Europe, coming in various sizes and colors.
A clue to their cultural requirements comes from the old species name “halophila,” which means “salt-loving.”
Ideal Growing Conditions
Spuria iris will grow in almost any kind of soil. Even the newest hybrids will tolerate salty and alkaline soils, although it has been erroneously held that they require neutral or acid soil.
The rhizomes or fleshy roots of the spuria iris do not tolerate drying when out of the ground, but they seem to prefer baking after they have flowered in the garden.
However, when in active growth, they respond to plenty of water, in which respect they resemble Louisiana and Japanese iris.
The blooming period of spurias in the United States follows the bearded iris.
In the north, the interval between blooming periods is longer than in the south, where they overlap.
Spuria Iris Seed Characteristics
The species and many of the hybrids are self-fertile. However, seeds are produced in large quantities and germinate so readily that they frequently usurp the whole garden unless vigorously controlled.
An interesting characteristic of spuria iris seeds is the thin parchment envelope containing air in which each seed is enclosed.
This enables the spuria seed to float and abets its distribution along rivers.
Different Butterfly Iris Hybrids
While many of the supposed species are probably natural hybrids, the introduction of horticultural hybrids has been progressing rapidly.
Among the early hybrids which have been popularly accepted was Barr’s A. J. Balfour was introduced at the turn of the century.
Sir Michael Foster added several, the best-known of which are Monspur and Shelford Giant. The genius of the Sass family gave us the excellent yellow Sunny Day.
In recent years, the most extensive hybridizing has been done by the late T. A. Washington of Nashville, Tennessee, and the late Eric Nies of Hollywood, California.
Many iris enthusiasts consider the yellow and white Bathsheba to be the finest of the Washington spurias.
My choice would be the more delicately ruffled blue Hazy Hills or Fairy Wand. Perhaps the closest approach to a red spuria is Mr. Washington’s variety Monteagle.
There is no pure white spuria, but Carl Milliken’s White Heron is a step in this direction.
This same hybridizer, well known for its many delicate, tall bearded iris, has come to a large buff-colored spuria of the excellent form called Wadi Zem Zem.
The most notable breeding of spuria iris was recently done by Mr. Nies, who was awarded the Hybridizers’ Medal of the American Iris Society.
The bronze veins of Sir Michael Foster’s Monspur were increased in Mr. Nies’ Bronzespur and, more recently, in his Russet Flame and Golden Agate. His newest brown spuria was Cherokee Chief.
The First Premiere Bloom Of A Spuria Seedling
Last season, in the distinguished company of the noted iris breeders Stafford Jory and the late Sydney B. Mitchell, the writer was privileged to view the first bloom of a seedling with substantial brown falls in the Nies garden.
Another premiere bloom was a seedling with deep reddish-brown falls with bright cream edging.
Mr. Nies originated such outstanding blue-and-yellow spurias as Pastoral and Saugatuck.
Among his best blue introductions were Dutch Defiance and Color Guard. The large-flowered Carmen Corliss is soon to be offered, the deepest blue spuria to date and a late-bloomer.
Different Uses Of Butterly Iris
The spuria or butterfly iris flower is quite similar to that of the Dutch iris, but the stalks are much taller.
There are also 3 or 4 pairs of flowers on short branches to each stalk, making this species valuable as a cut flower and in arrangement work.
Probably the finest varieties for arrangements are Mr. Nies’ Two Opals and Larksong.
The former is a pastel blend of blue, gray, and yellow, with flaring ruffled falls.
It will join its color class with the larger but less ruffled Zephyroso. Larksong has white standards and yellow falls with a clean white border around them.
When the lovely new forms and colors are better known, the butterfly iris is destined to find more favor in gardens of all country sections.
Not only do its blooms have great garden value, but the swordlike foliage is attractive and useful in arrangements throughout the year.
Butterfly iris is also unexcelled for corsages since the flower resembles an orchid but is less fragile.