Friday, March 14, 2014

The Survivors - In Praise of Hardy Irises

By Mike Unser

I've been a member of HIPS for many years now and have had hundreds of folks send me photos of irises they have found which they are looking to ID. I also like to note when I am traveling what varieties I see left in public plantings where they receive little care. From these observations a few have turned up again and again, and it has given me a good appreciation for those varieties that are super hardy and can survive years of neglect. Here's a few of my favorites. (As always, click the photos for larger views).

Flavescens shows up over and over, especially in the northern part of the country where it was spread far and wide by settlers from Scandinavian countries. I see it here in Olympia and surrounding towns all the time in spring, happily blooming away with no care at all. One local clump is in the shade of a big leaf maple and doesn't seem to mind the heavy shade a bit. These survivors are always breaking the "rules" we usually think of when cultivating bearded irises.

Several years ago when visiting my hometown in Illinois I stopped by the farm where my grandparents had lived. My grandmother had sold the place ten years before but her iris garden was still there. The current owners graciously allowed me to take some starts home. Among them I found I. kochii, Blue Shimmer, and Pinnacle. I. kochii in particular seems very widely spread.

Another relative's old homestead turned up Florentina happily growing under a large rhody. Florentina shows up everywhere in the US.

This next one does not have a name. The best HIPS experts have pondered it and come up empty and yet it is everywhere. I see this more often than most any other in people's submissions wanting IDs. I saw it on the AIS Facebook page the other day too, again, someone looking for the name. It is a real charmer too. Small diploid blooms but loads of them They open with the standards tinted lavender but it fades to a soft yellow over the life of the bloom.

These last two are maybe the hardiest of all: Lent A. Williamson and Indian Chief. Both are found all across the US. Here they are growing outside the Court services building in Olympia, WA. Every couple of years the city work crews come thru and dump several inches of beauty bark on them (!!), but they are otherwise left alone.

Indian Chief is growing in shade on the north side of the building and only gets direct sunlight in the summer when the sun moves far enough north to hit it.

I visited Mt. Hood several years ago and came upon a large clearing well up in the mountains. A cabin had been there once long ago but was now long gone, leaving an open grassy meadow. Scattered across the hillside were bearded iris fans. I took one home to see what this might be and, sure enough, it was Indian Chief.

If you are looking for some bearded irises that you'll never have to fuss over you could not find better than these, and they are perfect for tough climates or growing conditions. Hybridizers looking to bring vigor and hardiness into their lines could consider these as well.


  1. I love those clump shots, Mike! Beautiful irises that deserve a place in every garden.

  2. Thanks for the informative article about the historic iris. That unidentified iris is just beautiful.

  3. Thanks for your article. After many years, I was able to identify our irises from your photo of Indian Chief. We have had these irises for many decades, several generations and several states. After all these years, it appears that one has produced an odd sport with only one of the standards having half of it a brighter bluer violet, with the division of the standard down the center.
    Will this stay true with having only one standard with odd coloring?
    I posted a picture on my garden blog:

    1. Indian Chief is an excellent possibility for your heirloom iris. The mutant standard on your iris is not likely a true sport unless every bloom on the stalk is exhibiting the identical trait and the new increases from that rhizome show the same trait consistently over time. I suspect you just have what we often call a chimera - an interruption in the expression of a gene in part of an iris. Often this is a streak of another color. In this case the yellow pigments are not expressing in half the petal letting only the violet pigments show.


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