The Dwarf Bearded Iris The Loveliest

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In April and early May, the littlest irises are the loveliest. Their size is in keeping with the spirit of a season of new-hatched chicks, baby rabbits, and even the small fleecy clouds of April. Their charm is enormous, and their array of colors is second only to the tulips.

Last spring, in my northern garden, the pale blue of the tiny pumila iris ‘April Morn’ opened on the 19th of April. Next came the red and white ‘Cherry Spot,’ blue-violet `Salina,’ and burnt umber ‘Tantalizer.’

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Four colors in as many days! And that was just the beginning of what can be, in even a small garden, an exciting spring spectacle. 

These miniature beauties have yet to be well known among gardeners, for the great advance in their breeding is too recent for this group of irises to have attained the popularity it deserves.

My Dwarf Irises

One day last spring, I met an acquaintance who has had a lovely garden for years. “You must come and see my dwarf irises,” I said.

She dismissed the whole tribe with a wave of the hand. “I have both kinds, dear,” she said, “the yellow and the purple.”

“Do come,” I said and smiled. “You’ll be surprised.” Then, very much surprised, I said to myself and went home to walk in my garden and feast my eyes on my iris treasures.

Which of all the newer yellows would she like best, I wondered. The deep yellows? Maybe the 1957 Caparne award winner, smooth ‘Path of Gold,’? That radiant iris was the first to receive the Dwarf Iris Society medal, new in 1955.

Or would she prefer Paul Cook’s small, delicate slender-stemmed `Keepsake,’ with its heavy gold beard? Or Walter Welch’s ‘Orange Glint,’ which is bright but a slow increaser? Or those old standbys, the yellow chambers ‘Burchfield,’ and the one with the loveliest name-`Harbor Lights’?

Or the new ‘Early Sunshine,’ with dark yellow standards and orange yellow fails? Or gay `Yellow Frills,’ a yellow with beige overtones? Or `Zwanimir,’ a deep, bright yellow?

Perhaps one of the pale yellows would please her most: one of the Arenaria hybrids, maybe—Tutterball,’ a sulfur yellow, or the dainty Tie,’ with domed standards and flaring fails. Or Cook’s ‘Inchalong,’ a tiny lemon yellow.

Iris Arenaria

Iris arenaria itself, the tiny regalia species, despite its fleeting waves of bloom, would be worthy of a special place in anyone’s garden. 

Its flat, pale gold blooms are about the size of a quarter. It is one of my choicer treasures and easy to grow, given its simple necessities, of which superb drainage comes first.

I planted it in a sandy half-scree, which means that I dug deep and filled the hole half full of gravel mixed with loam, followed by loam to the root tips, and then pure sand. 

It has persisted thus for several years. The long drouth of 1957 was punished for not going dormant after flowering.

White Dwarfs

Most of the miniature white dwarfs, even recently introduced ones, still have a hint of yellow or cream in the falls: 

`Schneekuppe, “Whitone,’ and ‘Little Elsa’ are all in this class. ‘Snow Fairy’ (Robinson), a new prima hybrid, is all white with a white beard, and others will soon be available.

Still obtainable and still valuable in the garden is the old chamber’s ‘Fiancee,’ deficient in substance but white, even to the beard. 

And right here, one of the most important recent improvements in the iris, not apparent to the casual eye, is in the substance of the petals. Thick, heavy substance means increased resistance to wind and rain and greater depth of color.

The Amoenas

The fragrant new red amoena, ‘Cherry Spot’ (Welch), mentioned above, with sparkling white standards, white-margined cherry-red falls, and white-tipped beard, is exceptionally handsome, vigorous, and larger than most of the early dwarfs.

One clump of this variety will wonderfully accent the heart-shaped leaves and blue blossoms of Anchusa myosotidiflora and other delicate-flowered perennials.

Other outstanding amounts, only recently introduced, are ‘Gay Lassie’ and ‘Sparkling Eyes.’ The white-domed standards and clear yellow falls of ‘Gay Lassie’ suggest a miniature ‘Pinnacle’ to some.

Still, even that famous tall bearded does not have the ingratiating quality of ‘Gay Lassie’—quite a lass! ‘Sparkling Eyes’ won the Caparne award in 1956. Its color pattern is that of the famous ‘Wabash’: white standards and blue-purple fall. It does not grow well in the East.

The Variegatas

The most cheerful and sweetest-smelling of the new dwarf variegates (yellow standards and red or brown falls) are Welch’s `Verigay,’ which has a true vanilla fragrance, and the impudent little ‘Primus,’ the 1951 Caparne award winner.

‘Ablaze’ is more brilliantly colored. `Brownete (Roberts), introduced last year, is something new in color, with bright orange standards and velvety falls. It blooms freely and grows vigorously.

The Purples

When we look toward purple, we find a rich array of red violets, blue violets, violet-blues, black purples, and “blacks” as well as just plain purple, which includes the perky white-bearded Tutch’; ‘Stylish,’ silken texture and fine form and color, but a little too large for perfect proportion; and Cook’s brand new ‘Stint,’ which I have heard praised as the best dwarf seen last year.

It is very dark purple with a blue beard. A complete purple self, including the beard, is Jonas’ Vatican Petite,’ which is of especially good substance and increases well.

Two glowing red purples are the older 9” inch `Enclymion’ and the attractive but difficult regalia hybrid ‘Beauty Spot,’ Caparne award winner for 1953.

The classic example of violet is the tiny, fragrant ‘Violet Gem,’ a lovely thing. Zickler’s new 8” inch `Mumbo’ is an excellent baritone with deep violet standards and deeper violet falls.

`Salina,’ one of the trio—famous among iris fanciers—of pupils grown by Robert Schreiner from seed collected in Austria, is a delightful iris of perfect form, a dark blue-violet, with a decorative light blue beard.

Among the red violets, `Alinda,’ with a pale beard, and tiny-flowered ‘Tampa’ are both popular favorites, as is still the century-old ‘Atroviolacea,’ which was, at last, in 1952, honored with the Caparne award.

This is the first bearded iris to flower in the spring. ‘Tiny Tony’ is another favorite among the older varieties; the newest is Doriot’s highly praised 5” inch ‘Red Amethyst.’

The Blues

Two new light blues, ‘Blue Frost’ and the fragrant `Flaxen,’ both Doriot’s, are delightful additions to the ever-popular blues. ‘Azurea,’ a natural hybrid collected in 1881, is among my favorite light blues.

It blooms so heavily that the clump is a mass of ruffled blue. Cook’s `Blue Band’ is a flaring soft blue, very free-blooming. His ‘Blue Lilt’ is light blue with falls tinged greenish and a purple spot below the yellow beard.

Greens and Browns

For those who seek something different, a series of both brown and green dwarfs has been recently introduced. ‘Dirty Face’ is listed as “spinach” green, but it seems more olive. The shape is good; the falls wide and flaring.

‘Green Petals’ is a green tone with chartreuse standards. Dennis’Green Sprite’—the arranger’s iris—is a soft green self, taller—8” to 10” inches—and later blooming than most dwarfs.

Some of the brown ones are especially interesting: Zickler’s s ‘Buster Brown’ has small blended brown standards showing the golden-beige style arms and deeper brown falls with a reddish tinge; V. Grapes’ Little Mobee’ is a brown tone with wide horizontal falls, bordered lighter. 

‘Tantalizer,’ a sturdy and easy-to-grow onco-regelia hybrid, has an interesting and odd flower of burnt umber with irregular maroon streaks. Both the flaring falls and the narrow open standards are pointed.

The Reds

While nobody would describe dwarf irises as stately, they have their grace, their dignity—especially noticeable in Welch’s proudly beautiful, fragrant ‘Red Gem,’ which stands 7” inches tall.

Its color glows: port wine with the sun shining through it. Truly a gem! Another of my top “red” favorites is ‘Blazon,’ an internationally admired, Caparne winner in 1955. and winner of the DIS medal in 1956.

Its perfectly formed deep maroon or wine-red flower is stitched in dull gold on either side of the narrow gold beard. This wholly admirable iris looks wonderful, planted together with aubretia’s light and dark colors.

In dwarfs, as in the tall bearded irises, great progress is being made toward black, which in living things is not a negation but a coalescence of color, like the banked fires of black opal. 

The blackest dwarf I’ve seen is Welch’s ‘Little Joe’—though his numbered seedling, L552, a dark, dark baritone, is so fine on Kodachrome that I’ve put it on my want list.

`Little Villain’ is a ruffled, flaring black-violet with a white beard; ‘Black Baby,’ a new Sass chamber, is now in my garden but has not yet bloomed. It is said to be a beauty, rather small, a dark blackish-purple of fine form, slightly later-blooming than the pupils.

Two of Jonas’ new Petite series fit in here: ‘Jet Petite,’ introduced last year, is similar in coloring to the famous tall iris, ‘Deep Black,’ and bearded in the same blue-black. ‘Ebony Petite,’ introduced the previous year, is even smaller. It has purple standards, blackish falls, and a blue beard.

Pink Dwarfs

Breeding for pink is about as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack, but many of the dwarfs do show overtones of that beloved color. ‘Buzzer’ has a pink cast; ‘Lavender Dawn,’ the first militia hybrid and one of my favorites, is a clear lilac-lavender, including the beard.

‘Mist o’ Pink’ is a rosy lavender; ‘Misty Plum’ is a new baritone in soft shades of mulberry, and ‘Little Balkan’ is a rich mulberry self with a lavender beard. 

‘Promise’ is nearer to pink than any above, though it shows a yellowish influence. It is one of the most charming dwarfs with rounded, flaring, ruffled falls.


Most of the dwarf bearded iris will grow and proliferate like weeds, which makes frequent replenishment of food supplies necessary. They prefer a spare diet, gritty or sandy soil, and must have good drainage. 

A rock garden is a good place for them, but I plant them wherever I can find a suitable vacant spot—in the sun, of course.

Transplanting every other year is recommended, but by judicious feeding, excising old rhizomes from the mass, and adding some fresh soil each year, the busy gardener can postpone this operation for a year—or even two—and still be blessed with great color, come April.

44659 by Molly Price