Monday, April 18, 2016

Iris pumila: a Tiny Treasure

by Tom Waters

Iris pumila
In an earlier blog post, I wrote about how the tiny bearded iris species Iris pumila was imported to the US by Robert Schreiner in the 1930s and crossed with the popular tall bearded irises, giving rise to a whole new type of garden irises, the standard dwarfs (SDBs).

Today, I thought I would write about Iris pumila itself. Besides being an extraordinary find for iris hybridizers, it is a delightfully varied species that makes a wonderful garden plant. It is invariably the first bearded iris to bloom in the spring, starting several weeks before most of the hybrid dwarf cultivars.

In the wild, Iris pumila grows in a wide range across eastern Europe, from Austria in the west through Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, and into the Caucasus Mountains as far as Armenia and even Turkey. It is often found at higher elevations and dry, continental steppe climates. It is adapted to cold winters and sunny, open spaces. Conventional wisdom has it that Iris pumila does best in areas of colder climate (USDA hardiness zone 6 or colder), although I have grown it in southern New Mexico (zone 8), so it may be worth a try even in warmer areas.

Iris pumila is among the tiniest of bearded irises, with the tip of the blooms only about 10 cm from the ground. Usually, the stem is so short as to be hardly detectable; the blooms are held aloft on an elongated perianth tube, so that each bloom seems to be just sitting atop the rhizome from which it grows.

The species shows a phenomenal range of color. To judge from pictures I have seen on the internet, Ukraine seems to be the center of its diversity, with many extraordinary color combinations seldom seen in plants that have been imported to the US or western Europe.

The basic color may be blue, purple, yellow, or white, in any shade from pale to intensely saturated. There is almost always a darker "spot pattern" on the falls, which may be small or may cover virtually the entire petal. The spot may be solid color, or appear as rays or veins or an uneven wash of color.
You can find Iris pumila offered for sale by some alpine or rock garden nurseries. (A word of caution: non-specialist nurseries, like garden centers, often use "Iris pumila" to label any small bearded iris cultivar; these are not the true species.) Many seed exchanges have it, and growing from seed can be extraordinarily fun, since every seedling is different. It does take some patience, however, as irises take 2 to 3 years to bloom from seed.

There are also named cultivars of Iris pumila available from specialty iris growers. Many of these are registered as miniature dwarf bearded (MDB), since they meet the definition of the class. More recently, some have been registered as species (SPEC). One very popular Iris pumila cultivar is 'Little Drummer Boy' (Willott, 1997), which won the Caparne-Welch Medal for best MDB in 2005.
'Little Drummer Boy' (Willott, 1997)

Some newer Iris pumila cultivars include 'Steppe' (J. Burton, 2011), 'Keystone Oracle' (Jesberger, 2011), 'Wild Whispers' (Coleman, 2012), and 'Royal Wonder' (Coleman, 2013). 'Keystone Oracle' is notable for turquoise tones around the beard and spot, which varies from dark to pale depending on climate.
'Keystone Oracle' (Jesberger, 2011)
'Hobbit' (Miller, 2004)
'Royal Wonder' (Coleman, 2013)
I hope I've given you a taste of the beauty and variety of this diminutive iris species. Have you tried growing any Iris pumila in your own garden?


  1. Such an interesting and informative article. Thanks, Tom! I need to try a few of these--they're beautiful!

  2. I am delighted to finally be able to identify these tiny treasures. Many years ago I dug up iris from an abandoned farm house and among them were these tiny purple guys. I have never been able to find them in any catalog and always wondered exactly what they were. Thank you!

    1. Those are likely to be some historical cultivar, quite probably 'Atroviolacea', rather than the true species Iris pumila.

  3. Great article. Very informative.


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