Monday, January 17, 2022

Miniature Dwarf Bearded Irises: A Starter Kit

By Tom Waters

This time of year, most gardeners in the northern hemisphere are patiently (or not) waiting for spring to come. If you are a bearded iris enthusiast like me, that probably means you are anticipating the earliest blooming of them all: the delightful miniature dwarfs. 

In the American Iris Society classification system, miniature dwarf bearded (MDB) include bearded irises up to 8 inches (20 cm) in height. Often overshadowed by their larger relations, the standard dwarf bearded (SDB), the MDBs nevertheless offer something special to the iris garden. Many of them bloom before the SDBs, when there is little else in flower. Their daintiness gives them an added charm: some iris enthusiasts are fascinated by tiny flowers and enjoy the surprise of encountering an unexpected bloom in some little corner of the garden. If you try growing an MDB, you'll be glad you did!

But how to get started? Many commercial growers only offer the larger bearded irises, and those that do sell MDBs may have just a few. With SDBs so outnumbering the MDBs, it can take a little extra effort and attention to seek out these tiny gems. In this post, I make a suggestion of a "baker's dozen" MDBs for someone looking to get started. This is not just a list of personal favorites; the irises in the list have been chosen because they represent the full range of the class, in terms of color, form, climate adaptability, genetic type, and historical era. This is important because not all MDBs are alike. Only by sampling a full range of types can you get a good feeling for what the class has to offer and discover your own preferences. All the irises on the list have been available commercially in recent years and are widely grown in gardens where MDBs are found. They should not be too difficult to obtain. 

In addition to the obligatory hybridizer and year, I have also included the ancestry type of each iris in the list. Type I MDBs come from SDB breeding, type II from crosses between SDBs and the species Iris pumila, and type III are pure I. pumila. For a basic introduction to these types, see my earlier blog post Dwarfs for Every Garden. For a more thorough, technical explanation, see my article The Miniature Dwarfs, which first appeared in the 2019 edition of the Dwarf Iris Society Portfolio.

‘Alpine Lake’ photographed by Tom Waters

'Alpine Lake' (A. and D. Willott 1981, type II) is a much-loved classic MDB with crystal white standards and falls with a pastel blue spot. Virus sometimes makes the falls a bit splotchy, depending on weather; but it is still one of the best.

‘Beetlejuice’ photographed by Tom Waters
'Beetlejuice' (P. Black 2013, type I) is a unique plicata with distinctive "whisker" lines on the falls. It sometimes sends up stalks that push the height limit of the class, but the compact shape of the flowers preserves its "dwarf" look.

‘Cinnamon Apples’ photographed by El Hutchison
'Cinnamon Apples' (P. Black 1990, type I), one of Paul Black's earlier creations, is notable for its rich reddish brown color in a class where blue, purple, yellow, and white tend to predominate.

‘Ditto’ photographed by Barbara-Jean Jackson
'Ditto' (B. Hager 1982, type I) is not only a delightful little iris with its cream color and bluish red spot, but it also reblooms in some climates.

‘Dollop of Cream’ photographed by Tom Waters
'Dollop of Cream' (P. Black 2006, type I) is a personal favorite. Earlier than most type I MDBs, it often ushers in the season here. I also appreciate the pastel color and the tasteful ruffling that is not too overdone.

‘Gecko Echo’ photographed by Jeanette Graham
'Gecko Echo'
(B. Kasperek 2007, type I) is unmistakable for its deep mustardy fall spot.

‘Gold Canary’ photographed by Tom Waters
'Gold Canary' (A. and D. Willott 1981, type II) really lights up the garden in early spring. 

‘Hobbit’ photographed by Tom Waters
(L. Miller 2004, type III), a tiny (4.5 inches!) blue pumila from Lynda Miller, is one of the best of this type.

‘Icon’ photographed by Tom Waters
'Icon' (Keppel 2008, type I) is a real zinger with its intense orange color and contrasting spot. Also an early bloomer here.

‘Little Drummer Boy’ photographed by Tom Waters
'Little Drummer Boy'
(A. and D. Willott 1997, type III), a striking pumila with deep navy blue spots is an enduring favorite.

‘Royal Wonder photographed by Tom Waters
'Royal Wonder' (C. Coleman 2013, type III) is a robust, floriferous purple pumila - incredible impact for such a little iris.

‘Small Token’ photographed by Tom Waters
'Small Token' (L. Miller 2014, type II) is a rich and subtle red color on a very diminutive plant. Unique!

‘Zipper’ photographed by Jeannette Graham
(D. Sindt 1979, type II) is a standout with its deep yellow petals and electric violet beards. A true classic.

If you haven't tried the miniature dwarfs, I hope this "starter kit" gives you a good taste of what the class has to offer. If you already grow some, maybe this list will inspire you to pick up a few more and diversify your collection. Mine usually start blooming the last week of March here in northern New Mexico. I'm counting the weeks!

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