Bearded Irises - Iris

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Bearded Iris 'Bewilderbeast' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaBearded Iris 'Bewilderbeast' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaCondensed Version:

Bearded irises have played a starring role in cultivation for so long that the origins of this enchanting perennial are shrouded in the mists of time. All of the ancestors of the bearded iris originate from central, southern and Eastern Europe; and the Near East; and most taxonomic botanists believe that modern bearded irises are the result of interbreeding among about fourteen wild iris species. Irises remain one of the most reliable of the flowering perennials, flourishing in gardens and botanical gardens around the world and gardeners can rest assured, that if grown correctly, bearded irises will put on a spectacular show in their gardens from early spring; with re-blooming varieties continuing through summer.

Irises come in amazing array of colours to suit every gardener’s taste; such as blue and purple, white and yellow, pink and orange, brown, and even black. Several of them also have a beautiful sweet scent, and many older folk will remember that the earliest iris hybrids were highly scented. A small selection of plants or tubers is usually held by garden centres at appropriate times during the season, but there are thousands of cultivars available from specialist suppliers. Bearded irises are stately, elegant plants, no matter whether they are short, medium or tall growing varieties, and will add spectacular colour to flower borders. They also provide excellent accent and contrast to garden beds with their fans of sculptured, sword-shaped, bluish green leaves, standing stiffly upright or curving gracefully at their tips.

Bearded irises are not at all difficult to grow and are great for beginner gardeners. They grow throughout South Africa, but are not well suited to the humid coastal regions of KwaZulu-Natal and the Lowveld. They thrive in regions with high summer rainfall like the Kwa-Zulu Natal mist belt, and grow well on the Highveld, with a cold spell below zero setting their clocks for flowering in spring.  In arid regions of the country they need year round watering, and in the winter rainfall regions they must be watered well in summer. Irises can be planted throughout the year and come into full bloom during spring and early summer - from August onwards. Generally they rest during the heat of midsummer and re-bloomers will have another flush of blooms in late summer. New improved hybrids are continually being bred for their re-blooming qualities; and in warmer climates some cultivars will bloom almost all season long.  

Irises are quite tolerant of less-than-perfect soils, but most importantly, they require good garden soil that drains well; water should never stand in the beds. Good air circulation is also essential around the plants and their roots. The plants flower best in full sun; but will grow in light shade +-5 to 6 hour’s direct sunlight. The flowers need protection from strong winds and some afternoon shade is beneficial in extremely hot climates.

Bearded Iris 'Night Magic' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaBearded Iris 'Night Magic' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaIt is a common mistake to plant Irises too deeply, so plant your rhizomes at or just barely below the surface of the ground, ensuring that the tops of the rhizomes are visible and the roots are spread out facing downwards in the soil. However, in extremely hot climates or in very light soils, the rhizomes can be covered lightly with one or two centimetres of soil. They are generally planted +- 60cm apart, but can be spaced at 20cm if you need a more instant effect. Apply a thin layer of compost and a dusting of bone meal around the base of the plants each spring, this should suffice and give you beautiful blooms without any further feeding; but feeding in late summer and early spring with a balanced fertiliser high in potassium won’t do any harm. A common mistake gardeners make is to overwater their Irises; once established they are extremely water-wise and will only require watering when the top three inches of soil dries out. Less frequent deep watering is better than frequent shallow watering.

The rhizomes grow along the surface of the soil, sending leaf fans upwards and roots downwards from their growing end. During the heat of summer they become hardened, protecting them from pests and diseases; and they generally take a rest, with growth resuming again in late summer and autumn before the leaves die down completely and the plant enters a completely dormant state for winter. Remove limp or dead leaves and any other litter regularly; as well as the stems of spent blooms.  In autumn, trim away dead foliage and prune back healthy leaves to a height of 4 to 5 inches; and in cold regions apply a layer of mulch over the soil to help protect the roots from freezing temperatures.  In extremely cold regions the roots of the plants often heave out of the soil due to alternate freezing and thawing. If heaving occurs, don't try to force the plants back into the soil; rather cover both the rhizomes and the exposed roots with soil, straw, newspaper, or any organic material. Divide bearded irises every 4 to 5 years, preferably in late summer (April); or at least four to six weeks before the first frosts arrive. However, if not done at this time, and provided you take good care of them, they can also be divided in spring. Dig out the clumps and discard the old divisions in the centre of the clump; these sections have very few white feeding roots. Select only large new fans with leaves to replant.

Bearded Iris 'Mesmerizer' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaBearded Iris 'Mesmerizer' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaFull Version:

Description, History & Interesting Facts:

The bearded iris belongs to the family Iridaceae, which has about 325 species and 50,000 registered varieties. It remains one of the most beautiful of the flowering perennials; and all of the ancestors of the bearded iris originate from central, southern and Eastern Europe; and the Near East. Their habitat is very diverse, with the majority of species growing in temperate Northern climates; some in deserts; some in swamps; a few in the cold far north; growing on grassy slopes, in meadowlands and along riverbanks. It is most likely that the plant was named after the Greek goddess Iris (iris being the Greek word for ‘rainbow'). In Greek mythology, and particularly in the Iliad (an epic poem attributed to Homer) Iris was a divine messenger who rode rainbows between heaven and earth, and according to legend, an iris grew wherever the footsteps of the goddess touched the earth; giving rise to one of the common names used for irises ‘flower of the rainbow.

Bearded irises have played a starring role in cultivation for so long that the origins of this perennial are shrouded in the mists of time; and it is believed that most of the crosses took place naturally due to the close proximity of the plants, and it's possible that early plants-men were breeding irises many centuries ago by selecting desirable irises from crosses made naturally by bees. Irises were not only cultivated for their great beauty, but also for their medicinal, culinary and cosmetic properties; and a depiction of an Iris can be found on the walls of an Egyptian temple that dates back as far as 1500 BC. Apparently the spread of irises can be attributed in part to the soldiers of the Ottoman Empire. The soldiers used to carry iris rhizomes with them for medicinal purposes, and because it was believed that the sword-like leaves of the iris would drive away evil spirits, whenever a comrade died an iris rhizome would be planted on his grave.

Bearded Iris 'Edith Wolford' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaBearded Iris 'Edith Wolford' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaMost taxonomic botanists believe that modern bearded irises are the result of interbreeding among about fourteen wild iris species, and since the variations in size increased with these breeding’s, bearded irises have been split into six different groups, based on plant size and growth habit. Bearded irises are stately, elegant plants, no matter whether they are short, medium or tall growing varieties, and will add spectacular colour to flower borders. They also provide excellent accent and contrast to garden beds with their fans of sculptured, sword-shaped, bluish green leaves, standing stiffly upright or curving gracefully at their tips. In some varieties the leaves have a surprising and attractive purplish red tinge at the base.

Irises come in amazing array of colours to suit every gardener’s taste; such as blue and purple, white and yellow, pink and orange, brown, and even black. Several of them also have a beautiful sweet scent, and many older folk will remember that the earliest iris hybrids were highly scented. Because Iris was the Greek goddess for the messenger of love, her sacred flower has long been considered the symbol of communication and messages; so a gift of an Iris can be used to convey many emotions, based on their colours. For example a purple iris is symbolic of wisdom and compliments, blue symbolizes faith and hope, yellow symbolizes passion, and white symbolizes purity. Irises can be planted throughout the year and come into full bloom during spring and early summer, from August onwards. Generally they rest during the heat of midsummer and re-bloomers will have another flush of blooms in late summer and autumn. Modern hybrids are continually being bred for their re-blooming capabilities, resulting in varieties which will bloom almost all season.

Bearded Iris 'Diabolique' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaBearded Iris 'Diabolique' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaUses:

At one time the roots or rhizomes of the iris became popular in the field of Western herbal medicine and were used for all sorts of ailments and complaints, but they are now used mainly as a fixative and a base for perfumery and, believe it or not, in the making of many brands of gin. The powdered root is called ‘orris root’ and is added to potpourris to fix the fragrance.

To make an essential oil the root has to be dried and aged first, which can take up to five years. It is then ground to powder, dissolved in water and distilled. In order to produce two kilograms of essential oil you require one ton of iris root.

Make your own perfume:

Iris root has a delicate fragrance and for many centuries was made into perfume by the Romans, Greeks and Italians. You can try your hand at making your own perfume at home, either with orris root powder bought from a chemist, or from rhizomes you have spare from your garden.

Add 60 grams freshly chopped iris root or 30 grams orris root powder to 100ml of vodka. Add essential oils or fresh herbs of your choice before sealing the bottle and letting it infuse for about two weeks; shake the bottle daily. If after two weeks the fragrance is not strong enough for your liking, the old herbs can be strained out and fresh ones added and allowed to infuse further. Once the perfume is to your liking, strain and decant into a pretty bottle.

Bearded Iris 'Brides Maid' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaBearded Iris 'Brides Maid' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaCulinary:

Iris root is referred to as ‘orris' root, particularly where herbal concoctions and fine cuisine are involved. It is one of the ingredients in ‘ras el hanout’, a complex blend of herbs and spices primarily associated with Moroccan cuisine, but also used across the Middle East and Northern Africa. Ras el hanout recipes include cardamom, nutmeg, anise, mace, cinnamon, ginger, various peppers, and turmeric, but 30 or more ingredients might be used. The spices are typically prepared by grinding together whole spices, dried roots and leaves.

In the Garden:

Irises are beloved ornamental plants in gardens and botanical gardens around the world. In the United Stated of America the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens in New Jersey, is a living iris museum with over 10,000 plants, while in Europe the most famous iris garden is arguably the Giardino dell'Iris in Florence, Italy;
which hosts a world famous iris breeders' competition annually. Irises, especially the multitude of bearded types, also feature regularly in shows such as the Chelsea Flower Show. Gardeners can rest assured, that if grown correctly, bearded irises will put on a spectacular show in their gardens from early spring; and re-blooming varieties, continuing through summer. When different varieties are planted together they make a most spectacular display; and the grey-green colour of the sword shaped leaves will add valuable accent and contrast to a flowering border. A small selection of plants or tubers is usually held by garden centres at appropriate times during the season, but there are thousands of cultivars available from specialist suppliers.

Bearded Iris 'Armageddon' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaBearded Iris 'Armageddon' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaCultivation

Bearded irises are not at all difficult to grow and are great for beginner gardeners. They grow throughout South Africa, but are not well suited to the humid coastal regions of KwaZulu-Natal and the Lowveld. They thrive in regions with high summer rainfall like the Kwa-Zulu Natal mist belt, and grow well on the Highveld, with a cold spell below zero setting their clocks for flowering in spring.  In arid regions of the country they need year round watering, and in the winter rainfall regions must be watered well in summer. Irises can be planted throughout the year and come into full bloom during spring and early summer - from August onwards. Generally they rest during the heat of midsummer and re-bloomers will have another flush of blooms in late summer. New improved hybrids are continually being bred for their re-blooming qualities; and in warmer climates some cultivars will bloom almost all season long.  

Although they are easy to grow, irises do however have a few simple but important requirements. They will adapt to most garden soils, but most importantly, they require soil that drains well, and water should never stand in the beds. If you have heavy or clay soil, adding humus, compost, or other organic material will improve drainage; gypsum is an excellent soil conditioner that can improve most clay soils. A raised bed or planting on a slope are also ideal to plant irises in these conditions. Good air circulation is also essential around the plants and their roots. Prepare your beds well before planting by digging them over thoroughly and incorporating some compost and bone meal.  The ideal pH for irises is 6.8 (slightly acidic) but they are quite tolerant of less-than-perfect soils. The plants also flower best in full sun; but will grow in light shade +-5 to 6 hour’s direct sunlight. The flowers need protection from strong winds and some afternoon shade is beneficial in extremely hot climates.

It is a common mistake to plant Irises too deeply, so plant your rhizomes at or just barely below the surface of the ground, ensuring that the tops of the rhizomes are visible and the roots are spread out facing downwards in the soil. However, in extremely hot climates or in very light soils, the rhizomes can be covered lightly with one or two centimetres of soil. Tamp the soil down firmly to anchor the new rhizomes and water well until established.  Irises are generally planted +- 60cm apart, but can be spaced at 20cm if you need a more instant effect; but be patient because  perennials require time to grow. New growth may be noticeable within 2 to 3 weeks, beginning with a new central leaf in the fan. Depending on the time of planting, the maturity of the rhizome, and geographical location, there may or may not be blooms the first spring after planting.

Bearded Iris 'Martel' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaBearded Iris 'Martel' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaApply a thin layer of compost and a dusting of bone meal around the base of the plants each spring, leaving the rhizome exposed. This should suffice and give you beautiful blooms without any further feeding; but feeding in late summer and early spring with a balanced fertiliser high in potassium won’t do any harm. Place fertilizer around the rhizomes, not directly on them, and water thoroughly afterwards. Feeding too often with a fertiliser high in nitrogen will encourage prolific leaf growth at the expense of the blooms, as well as increasing the risk of root rot.

The rhizome, or swollen stem, is where the plant stores nutrients and moisture, enabling it to survive a certain amount of stress. These grow along the surface of the soil, sending leaf fans upwards and roots downwards from their growing end. During the heat of summer the rhizomes become hardened, protecting them from pests and diseases; and they generally take a rest, with growth resuming again in late summer and autumn before the leaves die down completely and the plant enters a completely dormant state for winter.

Because the feeding roots of Irises are very close to the surface of the soil, it is essential that you do not allow neighbouring plants or weeds to encroach on their growing space. They also require sunlight right down to the rhizomes at root level; so remove limp or dead leaves and any other litter regularly.  Remove the stems of spent blooms by cutting them off at ground level. Try to do this on a dry sunny day if you can so the wounds can heal quickly, thus minimising the danger of rot.

Bearded Iris 'Color me Blue' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaBearded Iris 'Color me Blue' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaA common mistake gardeners make is to overwater their Irises; once established they are extremely water-wise and will only require watering when the top three inches of soil dries out. The watering frequency will depend to a great extent on your environment. After planting, water well and continue watering until the first good rain. If lack of rain persists, watering should be deep enough to penetrate the shallow root system. Less frequent deep watering is better than frequent shallow watering. Long periods of wet weather can soften and weaken the rhizome, allowing pests and diseases entry. The waxy coated leaves express the overall well-being of the plant, with healthy leaves having a bluish tinge and growing vigorously from the middle of each fan.

Break out all the bloom-stalks as soon as the flowering season is over to prevent contamination of your named varieties by chance bee crosses. If crossed seed ripens unnoticed and germinates, the new plants will not be true to the parent plant and are very often unattractive. So breaking out bloom-stalks right away is a good garden practice. This will also encourage a second bloom on re-blooming varieties. In autumn, trim away dead foliage and prune back healthy leaves to a height of 4 to 5 inches; and in cold regions apply a layer of mulch over the soil to help protect the roots from freezing temperatures.  In extremely cold regions the roots of the plants often heave out of the soil due to alternate freezing and thawing. If heaving occurs, don't try to force the plants back into the soil; rather cover both the rhizomes and the exposed roots with soil, straw, newspaper, or any organic material. This can be held down with pegged chicken wire if necessary.

Bearded Iris 'Carat' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaBearded Iris 'Carat' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaPropagation:

Divide bearded irises every 4 to 5 years, preferably in late summer (April); or at least four to six weeks before the first frosts arrive. However, if not done at this time, and provided you take good care of them, they can also be divided in spring. Dig out the clumps and discard the old divisions in the centre of the clump; these sections have very few white feeding roots. Select only large new fans with leaves to replant.

Pests & Diseases:

Irises’ susceptibility to various pests and diseases often depends on your geographic location and many diseases may or may not affect your irises. During the heat of summer the rhizomes become hardened, making it difficult for pests and diseases to gain entry. However, long periods of wet weather can soften and weaken the rhizome, providing slugs and snails a hearty meal; and increasing the chances of fungal diseases. Keeping your garden clean from debris goes a long way toward avoiding the conditions mentioned above. This, together with well-drained soil, and the right amounts of food and water, will go a long way to preventing pests, as well as diseases like Bacterial Leaf Blight, Fungal Leaf Spot, Bacterial Soft Rot and Fungal Crown Rot.

Bearded Iris 'Art Deco' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaBearded Iris 'Art Deco' Picture courtesy Brentwood Iris Garden www.irisgarden.co.zaCaution:

Members of the Iridaceae family are toxic to dogs and cats, causing salivation, vomiting, drooling, lethargy and diarrhoea. It is mainly the rhizomes that are toxic, so it is unlikely that cats would dig them out, but if your dog does, and ingests them, it would be advisable to contact your local veterinarian. Thankfully, iris toxicity is generally considered mild to moderate, and short-lived.

Additional Info

  • Common Name: Bearded Irises
  • Latin Name: Iris