Monday, August 9, 2021

The Beginnings of Tall Bearded Irises

by Bob Pries

My first blog! I thought I might start off with some thoughts about another beginning which occurred about 200 years ago. For years I wondered what the first tall-bearded irises actually looked like. Here is what I've found.

Circa 1820, E. Van Berg oNeuenkirche, Germany and Marie-Guillaume de Bure of Paris, France began naming cultivated varieties from the bee crosses appearing in their gardens. Van Berg did not introduce his selections into commerce. On the other hand, De Bure is noted for the first named and introduced cultivar ‘Buriensis’---which he named after himself. It was said to have a plicata pattern similar to the later ‘Madame Chereau’ but larger with more rosy markings outlining the white flower.

Although considered an “amateur” in 1848, De Bure was said to have the largest collection of irises in France. The book “The World of Irises” (available through the American Iris Society Storefront) credits De Bure for setting in motion the train of events which led to all present-day iris societies. It makes me wonder, "How many bearded irises did De Bure have in his collection?" By 1830, De Bure’s work had inspired fellow Parisian Henri-Antoine Jacques, the horticulturalist famed for introducing the Bourbon Roses. Perhaps his only surviving cultivar is ‘Aurea.’ Jacques in turn, inspireNicolas Lémon of nearby Belleville, France (which was later annexed into the city of Paris).

Lémon was noted for growing thousands of seedlings. He did not bother with hand pollination and was quite happy with the work the bees produced. Nonetheless in 1840 he put irises on the map by offering 100 varieties for sale to the public.


This plate appears within Portefeuille des horticulteurs. Vol 2 (1848) with a nine page description

Between 1840-1850, Lémon continued to offer hundreds of irises for sale each year. To find descriptions of these irises we must go to the French literature. I am greatly thankful to Sylvain Ruaud and other members of the Société Française des Iris et plantes Bulbeuses for providing links to these descriptions of the Lémon varieties. Readers can find these by going to Lémon’s hybridizer page in the Iris Encyclopedia where you will find lists of his cultivars and linked references. The following plates show more of Lemon’s irises.

This plate appears within Bulletin du Cercle Général dHorticulture (1856)

American plant catalogs of this period rarely gave descriptions of these bearded hybrids and usually only offered collections of fifty or one hundred “germanica” irises. Although these bearded hybrids were often referred to as Iris germanica, it is likely that all of them had only Iris pallida and Iris variegata in their backgrounds. Experimental breeding between the two species by Sir Michael Foster, (of Trinity College in Cambridge, England) showed this to be the case. Since both species had chromosome numbers of 2n=24, their offspring were all fertile with each other also. Germanica irises grown in gardens at the time were probably ‘Grandmas’ Blue Flags’ a sterile triploid.

It was probably not until about 1885-1890 that fertile tetraploid Iris germanica was collected from Amasia, Turkey and Foster started entering true germanica irises into breeding. Lémon’s irises were all diploid, while Foster's ‘Amas’ was tetraploid. Thus, the early diploid irises really formed a fertile family distinct from today’s tetraploid tall bearded. The Lémon hybrids had more affinity to today’s diploid miniature tall bearded than to our modern tall bearded. The few that remain of the earlier group provide a delicate charm and grace to modern landscapes. I would love to see more images of them in the Iris Encyclopedia.


  1. Thanks for the history lesson. Those plates are gorgeous.

    1. I love old botanical art, i am glad someone else appreciates it.

  2. For me the Iris world is filled with interesting puzzles that history enlightens. I love to see how it informs what we do today.

  3. All history is fascinating, but it's not always easy to find the history of one particular plant or variety. I'm so glad I came across this site!


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