Monday, November 26, 2012

Broken Color: Iris Color Terminology By Mike Unser

Of the many color patterns available in bearded irises perhaps none is so striking as that of the 'broken color' varieties. In color breaking, a genetic instability causes the colors and/or patterns of the iris to express irregularly giving a flower that is splish-splashed in a more or less haphazard fashion. No two blooms are ever just alike, and they can create a very lively and exuberant effect in the flower garden. Visitors that are unfamiliar with them always exclaim over the novelty. I'd like to share with you some of the varieties I have enjoyed over the years.

First up is a very old French variety now called 'Victorine'. It was likely introduced by LĂ©mon back in the 1840s under the name 'Victoire Lemon', named for his mother. The names were later confused and this iris in now grown in the US as 'Victorine'. A charming diploid variety in the amoena pattern with rich purple falls edged white under clean, white standards which are splashed on the inside of the petal with the dark purple of the falls. Very striking.

Another classic from the earliest days of iris hybridizing is one of the most widely known and grown: 'Loreley' by the German firm Goos & Koenemann, introduced in 1909. This is a very tough and hardy iris, and is widely grown as it can thrive just fine in neglected situations. Not the prettiest for form, it is nevertheless treasured for its beautiful colors. The falls are purple veined white and edged golden yellow, while the golden yellow standards are wide open and flecked with bits of the fall pattern - not just the purple, but the white striping too! Very unusual.

Next up are two varieties introduced by A.B. Katkamier. Both are sports in the 'Honorabile' family. This family of sports is widely known for its breaking of color and pattern. The novelty has made them very popular with collectors, who are always on the lookout for a new sport to appear in their beds. First up is 'Kaleidoscope' from 1929. A beguiling Miniature Tall Bearded flower with deep golden standards over lighter yellow falls that are splashed with shards of red and white.

'Joseph's Coat Katkamier' is a merry madcap of color with white, yellow, violet and red all appearing across the bloom in irregular profusion. This one was introduced in 1930, but was not officially registered until 1989. I think a clump of this in bloom adds a very whimsical note to the garden. You can learn more about this family in Jean Witt's article Notes on Honorabile, along with an excellent follow-up by Clarence Mahan on the HIPS website.

In 1956 Edward Watkins registered 'Corsage', his new variety that had been introduced the year before by Tell Muhlstein. A frothy confection of white and lemon yellow haphazardly arranged so that no two blooms are alike. It's lovely grown in a bed with pastel pinks and blues.

Another variety in almost the same color tones is 'Buttered Popcorn' (Palmer, 1970). This time the large ruffled blooms are creamy white drizzled with a soft, buttery yellow all about the standards and falls in a subtle drip-like pattern. The name could not be more perfect.

'Minnesota Mixed-up Kid' is a charming Border Bearded variety that has been known and grown since the early 1970's, tho it was not officially registered until 2003. It always makes me think of birthday parties with its lively coloration. A cream toned bloom deepening to golden yellow at the heart and speckled liberally with fuchsia freckles. An excellent grower and reliable bloomer, it elicits attention from every visitor.

In 1986 Allan Esminger introduced his new creation which went on to win award after award culminating in the Knowlton Medal in 1992. It is perhaps the best known broken color iris around today and is extremely popular with the gardening public. Big ruffled flowers are grounded white and heavily lined with royal purple. An excellent grower and bloomer, it is also known to occasionally sport a plicata bloom or two. In this pic you can see one of the standards and part of a fall are showing white edged purple.

'Batik's' awards and acclaim inspired others to start hybridizing for this broken color trait and in the 1990's Brad Kasperek began selling new varieties of his creation out of his aptly named Zebra Gardens, in Utah. Using a combination of eye catching flowers and creative names he really made a mark on the iris world and established this pattern as a real presence in bearded irises. One of my favorites of Brad's is 1993's 'Tiger Honey'. A beautifully tailored flower of honey-gold striped lighter gold and cream white. I don't grow many modern irises but I'll always make room for this and the following two Kasperek varieties.

The amusingly named 'Baboon Bottom' is an Intermediate Bearded iris of Brad's from 1994. An old rose pink striped and splashed light pink and white, it has not been the best grower for me in the cold and wet PNW but it manages to show off for me every few years and is always welcome when it does. It won the Knowlton Medal in 2002.

I'll leave you with two photos of my favorite of all the broken color irises I grow: 'Bewilderbeast', from 1995. An extravagant flower with falls of cream white ground and yellow shoulders all heavily striped with a rich deep mauve; silvery white standards are striped lighter mauve. A reliable bloomer and excellent grower, a clump of this is easy to achieve and stunning in full bloom. I would love to have seen this one win the Dyke's Medal.

I hope you've enjoyed this peek into a few of the varieties showing the unstable genes now known as the Broken Color pattern. Maybe you'll add a few to your garden, or share the ones you're growing now on our Facebook page. If you're looking for more on historic irises please visit the HIPS website. The latest edition of our eZine Flags is now available for download.


  1. Great read and awesome pictures, Mike.

  2. Great post Mike, I especially loved the seeing the older ones. Now I need to look for 'Victorine' and 'Corsage'.

  3. Jim - check with Superstition Iris Gardens. I think I got both from them. Corsage is messy but lovely for its color variations, Victorine is always perfect.