Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Prolong the Pleasure of Bloom with Spuria Irises

 by Sylvain Ruaud

A Canadian iris enthusiast, author of "Les Iris" (Editions de l'Homme, Quebec, 2007), says: "If you grow bearded irises successfully, you can grow spurias, which are not as difficult as some other non-bearded species." What's more, these spurias have the good idea of flowering immediately after the large irises, so they ensure that the pleasure is prolonged.

They're not very well known, probably because they were only developed in the 50s, which is nothing compared to the large irises that have been cultivated for 150 years. Yet it was the famous English botanist Michael Foster (1836/1907) who, around 1870, was the first to take an interest in spurias. By crossing Iris orientalis and I. crocea, he obtained a hybrid he christened 'Shelford Giant' which, in addition to its tall stature, had a creamy white color with golden signal of I. orientalis, a species native to Turkey but also found on the Aegean islands of Lesbos and Samos. Contemporary iris hybridizer Clarence E. Mahan had this to say about Sir Michaël Foster's work: "The most famous spuria obtained by Foster is a cultivar in two shades of blue which he named 'Monspur'. This name is derived from two species that Foster thought were his parents: I monnieri and I. spuria." 

Iris spuria by Redouté in Les liliacées

Iris monnieri by Redouté in Les liliacées

In fact, 'Monspur' would not come from the species known today as spuria, but rather from a subspecies (either I. spuria subsp. halophila or musulmanica). Chromosomal analysis of available 'Monspur' plants suggests this, but it's not certain that this is the true cultivar obtained by Sir Michael. In any case, the name 'Monspur' has practically become synonymous with spuria! Together with the creamy white 'Shelford Giant', it forms the basis of modern spurias. The man who best describes the development of spuria irises is Geoffrey Stebbings in his book "The Gardener's Guide to Growing Irises" (David and Charles, 1997)
... the real work of hybridizing spurias began in California in the 1940s. It was here that Eric Nies used 'Monspur' to create a series of irises that were so important that the supreme annual award for spurias was given the name 'Eric Nies Award'. When he died, Marion Walker recovered his stock and introduced several of his last seedlings, which remain among the best today and include the popular blue-violet 'Ruth Nies Cabeen' (40) and 'Sunlit Sea' (56), a medium blue with a deep yellow signal on the sepals.
Iris spuria subsp. halophila in Curtis's Botanical Magazine

Since those heroic days, Spurias have evolved. The flowers have grown in size, the "spidery" appearance of the early ones has given way to something more voluminous, with petals as well as sepals, and a few undulations have appeared. The choice of colors has also expanded: from the yellow-centered white of the beginnings to pure white, mauve, perfect yellow and brown, often combined with yellow for a kind of plicata.

In Eric Nies's time, Carl Milliken recorded 'White Heron' (1948, Nies Award 1958) and above all the yellow 'Wadi Zem-Zem' (1953, Nies Award 1956), which has the advantage of being resistant to virus attacks, which is important in irises that before him were very susceptible to these infections.

The hybridization of iris spurias began with the above varieties and a few others of lesser importance. After Eric Nies, Carl Milliken and Marion Walker, the torch was taken up by Walker Ferguson and then Ben Hager, who dominated the spuria world for many years before Dave Niswonger came along and swept all the awards (between 1999 and 2022 he won ten Nies Awards, only giving way in 2000 to Ben Hager and in 2008 to Charles Jenkins, then from 2021, and his demise). Today, the big spurias with 2n=40 chromosomes, at 1.00 m. or 1.20 m. tall, dominate the end of our seasons, in an increasingly complete choice of colors, since even orange is part of the panoply. They've never been as adored as the big irises, but their place is growing stronger every year.

1999 = 'Sultan's Sash' (Niswonger, 1990)
2000 = 'Ila Remembered' (Hager, 1992)
2001 = 'Missouri Springs' (Niswonger, 1994)
2002 = 'Sunrise in Missouri' (Niswonger, 1995)
2003 = 'Missouri Sunset' (Niswonger, 1995)
2004 = 'Missouri Rainbows' (Niswonger, 1997)
2005 = 'Missouri Iron Ore' (Niswonger, 1997)
2006 = 'Adriatic Blue' (Niswonger, 1996)
2007 = 'Missouri Orange' (Niswonger, 1998)
2008 = 'Elfin Sunshine' (Jenkins, 1998)
2009 = 'Missouri Autumn' (Niswonger, 1996)
2010 = 'Missouri Dreamland' (Niswonger, 1999)
2011 = 'Speeding Star' (Cadd, 2002)
2012 = 'Solar Fusion' (Walker, 2004)
2013 = 'Missouri Orchid' (Niswonger, 2006)
2014 = 'Gorden Ducat' (Cadd, 2004)
2015 = 'Missouri Morning' (Niswonger, 2007)
2016 = 'Castor River (Niswonger, 2006)
2017 = 'Line Dancing' (Jenkins, 2007)
2018 = 'Lemon Chiffon Pie' (Cadd, 2006)
2019 = 'Red War Clouds' (Walker, 2009)
2020 = no award
2021 = 'Steely Don' (Aitken, 2012)
2021 = 'Ibis Express' (Kasperek, 2012)
2022 = 'Ode to a Toad' (Kasperek, 2012)
2023 = 'Hot Chili' (Atiken, 2014)


  1. Enjoyed your post immensely! Your ideas are thought-provoking. Keep the posts coming!

  2. Thanks for the informative and inspiring post on Spurias. Always wanted to try growing them but not sure they could handle our hot, humid, often but not always rainy Georgia summers. Opinions welcome...are they doable here in the S.E. USA ?? Thanks in advance. Randy/GA