Saturday, June 11, 2011

Collecting Historic Irises

There are as many different ways to enjoy irises as there are people to enjoy them, and with dedicated iris collectors this holds true as well. No one iris garden ever looks like another. As the taste and personality of the gardeners comes into play we see it reflected not only in how the garden is arranged but also in what types of irises are represented. Whether you grow a few examples of different species scattered about your perennial garden, or look for the latest and greatest offerings from the top bearded iris hybridizers, or enjoy the history behind the classic varieties, there is something in the world of irises to please everyone.

[Above: a collection of varieties by Dr. R. E. Kleinsorge.]

If you had come to my garden last weekend for the annual 'Open garden/Iris Tour' you would have predominantly seen a wonderful collection of historic irises. When I first began gardening and was looking around for plants to add to my new beds I was fortunate to have several folks give me starts of old pass-along bearded irises that they had in turn received from a friend or ancestor. When they started blooming it brought back fond memories of my grandmother's gardens, both of which had many irises growing about, and set off a passion for more. The more I learned about irises and their long history the more I was drawn to those old varieties and the more of them I started acquiring.

I have seen folks arrange their beds of old irises by the decade of their origin to lovely effect. Irises of the same era often compliment each other well in their color tones and forms. Planned color schemes, regardless of era of the flowers involved, can also bring stunning views to the flower garden. I've used arrangement by hybridizer to good effect in my own plantings. I work under the theory that hybridizers move reselected seedlings to beds together for further evaluation, and irises planted with others which compliment them could not help but be a bit ahead in the running for introduction, so it is not surprising that those a master breeder finally selected for this honor would all be harmonious in a planting together. At right is a lovely conglomeration of several of the plicatas created by Jim Gibson.

Shortly after beginning my collecting I discovered the Historic Iris Preservation Society and AIS too. This has brought me into contact with hundreds of historic iris lovers over the last decade. I love to see how all the different folks I meet decide what to focus on and how they handle their collections and gardens, as seeing other gardens always inspires me to do new things in my own. I not only enjoy visiting iris gardens but I also enjoy showing off my garden by participating in the HIPS Display Garden program. Last weekend a dozen folks stopped by thru the day to tour the flowers and see a wide variety of different members of the iris family. It was great to see so much enthusiasm over these classic flowers. HIPS members are very generous in opening their gardens to folks wanting to see older irises, and I hope you'll check out HIPS' website for the listings and plan to visit gardens in your area.

Should you be interested in starting your own collection of historic irises now is a great time. HIPS is currently running their annual Rhizome Sale. This is the Society's main fund raiser which allows us to publish ROOTS, the biannual bulletin of the Society. If you are interested in historic iris, and supporting the mission of HIPS to preserve them, we'd love to get you started. Please see the website for details.

What irises do you collect and how do you grow and arrange them? Please tell us in the comments!


  1. I didn't know this before, but I guess many of my irises are historic. I love all irises!

  2. I love the photo of all of the Jim Gibson plicatas. The colors go together so beautifully. Thank you for sharing your irises.

  3. I'm glad you grow my 'Spiked Punch' and take such beautiful pictures of it.

  4. Walter - SP is one of my favorites and gets a lot of attention from the visitors to the garden. Everyone wants to grow it. I'll have it for a long time to come.

  5. Mike, what is the mulberry and lemon colored plicata in the foreground of the second photo? It's beautiful.

  6. Love the Historics! I believe I have the Yellow Chalice. This iris has reached a height of over 42"-45"... (even in a half day of sun!) Prolific, hardy, well branched and beautiful yellow. Anyone else have this one?

  7. I have this one too. It is gorgeous and grows that tall in unfertilized soils.

  8. I have so loved bearded iris since I was a kid. I am reading so much I didn't know about their care on this site. Thanks so much for all of it.


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