Thursday, March 14, 2013

Companion Planting with Irises: Thornbird

By Renee Fraser

Irises became my favorite flower because they are so difficult to kill. Once I began gardening in earnest, and learned how not to kill a wider variety of plants, color coordination and bloom time became important considerations. I am still a novice at companion planting in the garden, but Susanne Spicker, our newest blogger here on the AIS World of Irises, is an old hand at it. Her background in interior design and her natural flair for color make her a master at companion planting, so I asked her to come up with some ideas for a few irises that can be difficult to work with in the garden.

Our first iris for this series is the award winning space-ager 'Thornbird'.  Space-agers are irises in which the beard grows away from the flower fall. They can grow appendages such as flounces or spoons. 'Thornbird' also has a color you either love or hate: sort of a yellowy beige with a purplish cast to it.  It is a tough iris to work with in the garden, despite its many awards, including an Honorable Mention in 1991; an Award of Merit in 1993; the Wister Medal in 1996; and the American Dykes Medal in 1997. 

'Thornbird' Byers, 1989  Photo by Susanne Spicker

Susanne puts violets and purples with 'Thornbird' to exquisite effect. The violet companion plants bring out the purply overlay of Thornbird's falls and beard.  From top left in the photo below she uses: clematis Jackmanii, 'Thornbird', allium Giant Gladiator, gladiola Green Star, pansy Giant Rose Series, tall bearded iris 'Boysenberry Buttercup' with 'Thornbird', lilac President Grevy, pulsitillia, columbine yellow McKanna Giant, tall bearded iris 'County Cork', and tall bearded iris 'Master Touch'. All of these plants bloomed in her Utah garden during the iris bloom period. Susanne plants glads every two weeks to be sure she has plenty for cutting and for complementing her irises.

Purple works just as well with this iris. Here Susanne shows the same companion irises along with peonies, pansies, and lupines with the star of the show.

I like to use a dominant color in my beds, since I am a bit color-challenged.  This is a plan I have for a silver and gold bed using blue fescue, baumea rubiginosa 'variegata' (that spiky grass in the center photo), dusty miller, bunnytail grass, and artemisia.  I first saw the combination on a San Fernando Valley Iris Society Trek and I have never been able to get it out of my mind.

We should not forget that irises are excellent stand-alone plants in a landscape as well. With that in mind, we leave you with a spectacular clump shot of 'Thornbird' from Kaska Cholewa's garden in Poland.

Photo copyright Kaska Cholewa

Do you grow 'Thornbird' in your garden? Do you have it all by itself, planted with other irises, or with companion plantings? What would you like to see planted with 'Thornbird'?


  1. I would like to know what kind of companion plants to plant with my Iris that will actually benefit them, by improving the soil. Like the benefits you get when planting bean plants with corn. What flowers are from the legume plant family? Columbine, pansies, lupines, do these plants naturally increase the nitrogen content of garden soil?

  2. Renee, a beautiful article! Watching this blog for a long time and I am very pleased that there is something from me - my garden ... Thank you!

  3. That's a very good question, Sandra. I know that hybridizers plant cover crops like clover, but then they turn them over into the soil. That would be difficult in a garden.

    Since irises do not need much nitrogen, I don't think nitrogen fixers like legumes would benefit irises to the same degree they might benefit roses, for instance. Many growers warn against using nitrogen fertilizers on irises, although I have not seen the science relating to ill effects from over-fertilizing.

    The main concern with companion plants is to avoid planting things that require too much water or that smother the iris rhizomes, either of which produces conditions conducive to bacterial rot. I regularly ignore this advice in my garden, and I lose some irises as a result.

    Kaska, thank YOU.

  4. I agree - companion plants for irises must allow for air flow and ventilation more than anything. Plants that allow moisture to remain near the surface are not good as they can promote rot during warm temps.

    For Thornbird I like dark purple columbine, red-violet johnny-jump-ups and anything with a soft gold tone.

  5. An excellent article on color combination ideas, and complimentary companion perennials. I really enjoyed this.
    Thanks much!!

  6. I just thought of Cup of Gold Vine. It would be perfect with Thornbird!

  7. This is great info thank you. Colinbine and peony deer resist work for me. Lol i was thinking compainion 4 iris is more iris. Dawlfs mids japanese siberian etc

    Dusty miller great idea ty again


  8. I plant Thornbird with drumstick allium.

  9. The play of complimentary colors, purple / yellow and the matching pale tones do highlight Thornbird wonderfully. Also the grey-blues — artemisia + and the grass shapes. The suggestion for adding other iris companions is good as the leaves will carry a big effect beyond the flowering. The contrast of the globular alliums both in heights and shape as well as color would be terrific. The challenge is not just one of color — making a floral focus for a moment in time — but continuing the display through an extended period in the garden. Many of the wonderful suggestions will make great fleeting pictures. The iris leaves will give structure for a while after bloom, and then a distraction needs be devised to carry through to later highlights.


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