Monday, October 1, 2012

The Dark Delights of Black Irises

By Mike Unser

Autumn is settling in here, darker days are ahead and soon it will be Halloween. In honor of the season I thought I'd share a selection of the lovely black irises that grow in my garden. I'll start with a species that naturally exhibits a wonderful deep, dark color - I. chrysographes. A sub-species in the siberian iris family, this little flower is native to China. The flowers are a very deep red-violet, with the falls being quite velvety giving it an even darker appearance. It is not the strongest grower, but the beautiful little blooms make it all worth it. I love their long pendulous falls.
Black has long been a goal for hybridizers of bearded irises, and many of the best have worked to improve them over the decades. One of the first to receive wide acclaim was 'The Black Douglas', created by Jacob Sass and introduced in 1934. it was one of the darkest bitones of its day and also had excellent growth habits. It was extensively used in improving the color class.
Paul Cook introduced an even more important variety in 1938 named 'Sable'. Here was a real approach to the deep black that was so desired. 'Sable' also went on to win award and acclaim and was quickly used to create even more varieties. It is still much loved by collectors of historic irises.
Paul followed up with another amazing dark iris in 1952 when he introduced 'Sable Night'. A delicious dark red-violet with very velvety falls and flawless form. it went on to win the Dykes Memorial Medal in 1955.
The Schreiner's got into the act and in 1971 they introduced 'Patent Leather'. Here was a very different black iris! Instead of getting much of its dark tone from a velvety texture, it was a deeply pigmented self with a shiny, satin like finish. Its name is very well suited.
The Schreiner's did another of my favorite black irises in 1996 with their 'Old Black Magic'. This variety never fails to cast a spell on visitors to my garden, and everyone wants a start of it. Thankfully it is an excellent grower and there often are extras to share.
That same year, Sterling Innerst's 1989 introduction 'Before The Storm' won the Dykes Memorial Medal. It is still considered one of the blackest irises.
Another of my favorites is a smaller variety, the Standard Dwarf Bearded 'Dark Vader', an R&L Miller intro from 1987. What a charmer it is! Dark velvety petals topped with light blue beards make a very rich color accent in early spring.
These are but a tiny sampling of the wide variety of black irises that have been created over the years. There's bound to be varieties out there to please any taste. Black irises look great with just about any other iris color. Their dark tone can set a softer mood in the perennial border and supply an accent that makes brighter colors shine even more. If you have favorite varieties to recommend please share them in the comments.


  1. I like the dark/black irises. Have 'Before the Storm'. Will buy 'Old Black Magic!

  2. You missed one of the most important Blacks that was a critical building block in future black irises, Schreiner's 1945 introduction, Black Forest. A shorter, smaller flowered bloom, but had a plush finish important its decendents.


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