Monday, October 9, 2017

A Whiter Shade of Pale

By Bryce Williamson

White. A color so important in the garden and so often ignored. I would shock people when giving judges’ training with the idea that the two most important colors in the iris garden were yellow and white. I stick to that position—yellow bring a shaft of sunlight into the garden and whites are need to balance other colors and patterns, bringing harmony to the landscape that might dissolve into chaos.

Ironically only three white irises have won the American Dykes Medal—Swan Ballet and Winter Olympics in the Tall Bearded class and Swans in Flights, a Siberian. Whites have to be especially outstanding to get attention. We used to joke in Region 14, when all of us were growing lots of Winter Olympics seedlings, that a selection was “just another white.”


I have yet to grow Swans In Flight. With Siberians needing moist soil, the five years of drought have taken a toll on the yard and I did not have a good place for this variety. While we have lots of water in California this year, we need a second wet season to be sure that the drought is over.

In the last twenty years, two white tall bearded irises have achieved classic status. Larry Gaulter’s Carriage Trade did win an Award of Merit, but when it was first introduced, no one realized how really good it was and that it would endure while many of the irises introduced in that decade have disappeared. It is possible to note its tight branching, but that tight branching may actually be an advantage in two and three year clumps since the flowers are held close to the stalk. Still worth growing and still has a place in my iris collection.

Skating Party--image by Suzanne Spicker

Joe Gatty’s Arctic Express has also achieved classic status. The Gatty irises were always known for their impeccable form and Arctic Express is no exception with its heavy ruffling. Ironically, it has not always performed well for me in Campbell. When Bill Maryott was still growing irises, we would often comment about an iris growing well for him 5 miles away and I would be growing something well here that he had problems with. Since Arctic Express has rave reviews around the country, it is worth adding to the garden and in the last years of the California drought, it has done better here.

Arctic Express--image by Rick Tasco

White with yellow-gold shoulders was always an attractive color combination, but there are few choices these days. Off the beaten path hybridizer, George Hilton, has produced Be Still My Heart.


Be Still My Heart--image by George Hilton

Currently there is one warm white that is very good—by warm white I mean one that is tinted with cream/yellow. That iris is Ten Carat Diamond. So far the reports on this ruffled variety are good from all areas of the country.


Whites with tangerine-red beards are always popular. Vern Wood, who produced lovely irises in a small garden, released Arctic Fox and it is bright and dependable year after year. Perhaps there is a better red bearded white, but I have not seen it yet.

Arctic Fox--image by South Jersey Irises

Rick Tasco's White Hot has also be popular in the red-bearded white class, showing a touch of yellow at the hafts, and is an Award of Merit winner.

White Hot--Image by Brock Heilman

New on the horizon is Schreiners Kenny G. When I first saw it in Oregon in 2015, I dismissed it as “just another white.” Then I walked into the field and saw it on a long row, looking sharp, and went back into the display garden and took a picture. It is one of those irises I have added to the buy list. I am, of course, the only person who keeps a list of iris names by the computer of images that I have seen and think I might want to add to the plant to the garden.



Hybridizing in Missouri, an area that can have difficult weather in the spring, Barbara Nicodemus has produced a series of fine irises. Her Kennadi’s Angel is overlooked. Breed from two classic irises, this ruffled white has beards than deepen to gold in the heart of the flower.

Image by Hugh Stout

In a different direction, there are the cold-blue whites. Oddly I am going to mention Silverado here. This multi award winner, grows and blooms well; the flowers have lovely form. Registered as a bluebird blue, in our California sun, it opens powder blue and fades, gracefully, to blue white after one day. Growth is good too. It should not be a surprise that one of its parents is Carriage Trade.

Silverado--image by Betty Jacobs

So when planning your iris garden, remember traditional colors, including white, are important in the overall plan. White irises bring a calmness to the yard, provide transition between color that might be garish or clashing, and will rule the flower bed with calm serenity.

1 comment:

  1. I LOVE white iris! They have such an iridescence, both from a distance and even more up close. Wouldn't have an iris garden without them.

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