Monday, May 19, 2014

Hey, Listen Up: Advice to Young Siberian Irises

By Bob Hollingworth

If only irises had ears, what could we achieve? At last it’s May here in Michigan, the heavy winter snows have finally melted, the daffodils are in full array, and the Siberian irises are awake again and throwing up shoots that are now several inches tall. The long heavy snow cover this winter was a wonderful mulch and they have come through in excellent shape with no obvious losses – perhaps the only positive from this winter, which our meteorological expert at the university described as “a once in a lifetime event and you can bet on it.” He’d better be right. Even now it’s hard to believe that only two months ago the seedling rows in the photo taken last week were under 12-18 inches of snow that had been there since late November.

Siberian seedlings, late April 2014
So as the annual cycle turns, it’s time to start thinking of what we shall see in another few weeks as bloom is at its peak. And particularly, from a hybridizer’s viewpoint, how will some of the recent seedlings that seemed notable last year perform this year? Will that rather puny but lovely seedling take off and grow now? Will the one with only three buds throw a few branches as it grows up? Is that exciting photo from last year for real, or did a bit too much Photoshop give it artificial glamour? Experience indicates with certainty that not all these wishes will come true, but one success can make up for several disappointments  Getting all the good qualities together in one plant just ain’t easy.

So let’s walk down the newer seedling rows, make some mental wishes, and talk to the plants about what they need to do to succeed in life. Here we have a tetraploid seedling (11R9B3) that combines the red and yellow shades nicely. The flower looks fine, and the plant is robust, but last year, like so many tetraploid seedlings, it bloomed a bit low in the foliage – will it rise up this year?

Growing next door is a promising yellow tet seedling (11R1B12), of which there are no large number around. This has the same problem – massive growth but needing  just another two inches of stem to be perfect. Just grow up a bit will you guys? You can do it with some positive thinking.

Seedling 11Q3B1 was a complete and pleasant surprise among the new tets, since it bloomed a good foot higher than its siblings, ending the season with stalks 45” tall, but the flowers, although pleasing, are really not all that original. What I really wanted to see was the plicata-like pattern on a yellow ground. And here it is, on a sister seedling, 11Q3A7, but that one bloomed much lower. So will this seedling in its second year elevate its performance to match its sib? Just look over at your sister there – if she can do it, so can you. Surely you aren’t going to let her beat you. Go for it.



And a little further along here’s a plant (11Q7B5) that was treated with the chemical colchicine, which changes the genetics and induces tetraploid flowers. It seemed that a corner of the plant might be tetraploid and the flowers looked pleasingly different from the general run, but they gave no seeds in crosses with established tetraploids. Just a matter for patience, optimism, and effort again this year. It didn’t work out last year, but I you I know tried, and that’s what counts. This time you’ll make it for sure...

Continuing with red and yellow mixtures, several diploid seedlings bloomed for the first time last year with interesting colors (12Q3B3, 12S3B2, 13P4B6). Of course, they will need to grow and flower well, but that’s another hurdle to be cleared.



Ten years ago these would have been to die for, but in that time we have seen lots of such combinations introduced, primarily by Marty Schafer and Jan Sacks, so to be taken seriously, these must have something different that makes them not just “me too.” We shall see. Dare to be different, but keep in mind that three falls is quite enough; four is just a bit too different. And all of you, if you’re going to fade after the first day, try to do it slowly and gracefully. Then we get to 12S8B4. Not much to say here except that's exactly what I had hoped for, just keep it going. Great deep color contrast, nice bud count. A petite plant, but no matter, there’s room for those in the garden too. Wow, you’re looking great, but that foliage might be a tad untidy, could you straighten it up just a bit?

An area that continues to fascinate me for whatever reason is the multipetal Siberians. They present a special challenge in that each flower can have a different combination of flower parts and some look much tidier than others.

Seedling 12S2B21 was one of several in a cross I made for smaller multipetal flowers that on first bloom last year seemed to have come out very well, and, for once, most of the flowers were similar and quite tidy with just one layer of falls under a central bouquet of multiple standards and florets. Fingers crossed that it does as well again this year – and puts on a bit more growth. Perhaps you’d like a little extra fertilizer?  

Another goal is either a yellow amoena or pure yellow multipetal. It seems that seedling 11M7B5 is taking us well along to this objective. Just stay tidy and grow up a bit, and one day you could be queen of the show.

So we shall find out in just a little while which, if any, of these seedlings has paid attention to my advice and encouragement (threatening plants does no good I find and makes for a bad atmosphere in the garden). Discovering which have responded is what make anticipation so delicious. Although I might not let on to the plants, there is a price for not paying attention: and that’s a one way trip to the compost pile where heedless irises go. Their better behaved companions move on into the next stages that can end in getting their own name, an introduction to the wider world, and a shot at fame.


  1. Great article Bob, enjoyed learning something new.

  2. Never hybridized iris but do a lot with hosta! Nice article and lovely iris pictures.

    check out my recent post:


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