Irises: “The next batch hasn’t been planted yet, but I’m already excited to see them bloom next year.”

John Holland, a garden consultant in Glyndebourne, talks about how “elegant and delicate” irises are a constant delight.

Walking around the garden this week and seeing the ragged, reddish, and tattered leaves of bearded irises, it’s hard to remember how exciting they were just a few months ago. Last summer’s heatwave burned plant roots, so May and June this year saw a dazzling display of irises.

Irises have always had a strong presence at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show (they begin flowering naturally in May, so growers don’t have to force or artificially hold back their plants). This year, they attracted particular attention in the garden designed by Sarah Price, which was many people’s favorite display garden. The beautifully composed space was inspired by artist and plant breeder Cedric Morris and showcased the irises he bred at his home in Suffolk, Paignton End, mostly in muted colors and often with mottled petals. Morris chose irises that were, in his words, “elegance and delicacy.”

Landscape nurturing garden, designed by Sarah Price for the Chelsea Flower Show 2023. Credit: Andrew Sydenham Country Life

For decades, Benton’s iris, with its short season, single flower, subdued colors, and lack of scent, was considered inferior to modern hybrids. Now, the fashion and fortunes have changed, and it is one of the must-have plants this year. However, in my garden, it is still the noisy forms that will continue to find a home. As much as I admire Morris’s iris and his beautiful paintings, I would prefer my iris to be as sensual as those of Georgia O’Keeffe and as generous as those of Van Gogh.

I have, in the garden, iris ‘Benton Susan’, which has pale caramel-coloured upper petals (known as standards) and white lower petals (known as cascades), but always looks like a flower upholstered in a ball of iris, lost among the curly petals, brilliant colors and sweet scent. My other Qazhati perfumes. Grow near a strong group of I. Raja, which has long been a favorite for its gold standards and velvet waterfalls. It is a luxurious color combination that pairs perfectly with the spicy floral scent. The strongest perfume ever produced I. ‘White City’, a hybrid dating back to the 1940s, has, despite its name, pale blue petals flecked with grey. Friends who do not know the bearded iris are often surprised by the strength of its scent.

The most abundant hybrids, those with strong, often contrasting colours, with ruffled, furrowed or wrinkled petals are usually offered by French or American breeders. iris ‘Nice Job’ (the names given to irises are often silly) has honey-scented flowers with ruffled standards of dazzling bright yellow and fiery red-orange cascades edged with ochre. It’s a combination that sounds corny, but it’s captivating. Equally interesting, but without the fragrance I. ‘Funambule’ from French iris Cayo Nursery. The buttery yellow standards are so moody that they seem to form a single topknot contrasting with the deep violet cascades.

Iris ‘Fonamboli’, Photography © Clive Nicholls

Now is the time to divide and replant most bearded irises. One early morning soon, before the heat of the day, I will dig up clumps to tear off the dead leaves, cut off two-thirds of the healthy leaves and break up the woody roots, so that I will have neat, neat little plants. . I will replant the rhizome proud of the soil level so it can continue to roast whatever sunshine autumn brings. An iris grower once advised me to make sure the plant faces south so that the foliage does not shade the rhizome. This makes sense, but when I remembered to follow the advice, there was no noticeable increase in blooms. Some irises, known as remontants, produce only a few flowers in early autumn: these will split after their second bloom.

The next few weeks are the best time to buy irises, and specialist nurseries are selling rootstocks that should be planted before the end of September. I already ordered, and was limited to only three: iris “Cher and Cher Alike” (those names again) has a collection of dark lilac standards surmounting bright purple cascades; I. ‘Care to Dance’, an American newcomer available in Britain from Claire Austin, has contrasting white and maroon flowers with an unusual gray edge around the cascades; I. ‘Boston Cream’, famous for being very flowery, has, as its name suggests, creamy white petals packed together so tightly that the standard and cascades seem to form a little ball. They haven’t been planted yet, but I’m already excited to see them bloom next year along with the rest of the family.

Charles Quest Ritson talks about the irises you should grow, the ones you’ll never be able to grow in Britain, and the ones you can

Mark Griffiths takes a look at Japan’s famous irises, and how their influence has been felt in Britain

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