Bijoux Bulbs - Winter's Living Jewels

Iris histrioides "Major" For sheer audacity of design and sumptuous range of colors the Iris must be the Queen of Flowers and those early flowering gems from the reticulata group are among its crown jewels.

And they are just the right plant for the right season. Winter offers a brief pause before all the hurly burly of spring. Its a time when one can take a break and really appreciate the beauty of plants. There are few flowers around then but all repay close study even if it does result in muddied knees and being bent double to appreciate their exquisite inner workings.

Pools and ripples of reticulata iris in full flower are a sublimely impressive sight but its only up close that the full drama is revealed. Their blooms have a complex symmetry consisting of an arrangement of six petals, three upright, often paler, inner ones, known as standards, and three longer outers, known as falls, which are often elaborately decorated. The flowers display a glorious range of colors from white to ice-blue, azure through plum to rich violet purple, even golden yellow. Recent intensive hybridization has added bicolor in blue and white, sea-green and black, and earthy browns and rich yellows.

The intrigue continues with the complex and delicate markings of stripes, dots and dashes on the falls with each individual carrying its own unique pattern. It could be the camouflage cover on the wing of some exotic butterfly or the flashy feathers of a fighting cock or a colour fractal from the Mandelbrot set. These are works of art worthy of a Faberge or a Chinese master but it is nature that has fashioned their design.

Reticulata irises are so named for the coat they wear. This coarsely woven tunic is designed to protect and insulate the bulbs against both heat and cold. The whole group belong to the subgenus Hermodactyloides, from the Greek, meaning the god Hermes' finger.  This is somewhat of a misnomer because the bulbs are nothing like fingers but shaped like neat, solid teardrops.

Iris reticulata "JS Dijt" Iris reticulata "Purple Gem"

 

Most available varieties are selections of, or hybrids between, Iris reticulata and Iris histrioides. Throughout its native range I. reticlata is mostly reddish to bluish purple intricately patterned with white or yellow on the falls. The tried and trusted "JS Dijt" with its velvety purple reddish flowers and bright yellow flash on the falls and the rich plum-purple "Purple Gem" with its contrasting lighter standards and striking white crest are typical of the wild species. The first noticeable colour break arose in the garden of EA Bowles in 1914. This plant has soft, pale Cambridge blue flowers with bright yellow tips to the falls and not surprisingly it was named "Cantab". In the 1970s the color spectrum was nudged again when Willem van Eeden was able to produce the near white "Natasha" with its pale ice-blue and green feathering and orange-yellow crest.

Iris reticulata "Cantab" Iris reticulata "Natasha"

 

I. histrioides is a beautiful plant from the high mountains near the Black Sea coast in Turkey where it is now very rare. The true species is scarce in gardens and is represented by two exceptional forms: "Major", which has large royal blue flowers with a dramatically contrasting white ray patterning on the falls and central lemon crest, and the paler blue "Lady Beatrix Stanley", its falls clouded in a mass of  white feathering and a few darker spots. Often the very large, early flowering "George" is offered as a cultivar but its splendid velvety purple flowers and virtual black falls betrays its I. reticulata blood.

Iris histrioides "Lady Beatrix Stanley" Iris x histrioides "George"

 

There are many varieties of similar origins with flowers ranging through shades of blue, violet and purple and the following are a few of my personal favourites. "Harmony" is the standout plant with its lusciously rich deep blue flowers each printed with a strong yellow flash fringed in white. Its sport, "Alida" bears paler, sky-blue flowers with a soft primrose crest. Both are fragrant, vigorous and gorgeous. Contrary to its name "Pixie" has large, intensely violet-blue flowers shading to inky black on the falls that are so bewitchingly surreal they could have been lifted out of a porcelain painting. My final choice is "Clairette". This award winner is a prolific flowerer producing a succession of spangled blooms in sky-blue and dark purplish-blue with a large white crest on the falls and a hint of lemon in the throat.

Iris reticulata "Harmony" Iris reticulata "Alida" Iris reticulata "Clairette"

 

In 1960 plantsman and writer E B Anderson made the first recorded cross between I. histrioides and the rare primrose yellow I.  winogradowii from Caucasus. Two seeds were produced but only one of them went on to flower. The result? An intriguingly beautiful, if slightly jaundiced, confection of creamy white overlaid in cool pale blue with darker veins that merge into yellow stains and random spots on the falls. Anderson named his new treasure "Katharine Hodgkin", after the wife of fellow plant devotee, Eliot Hodgkin and passed it on to others who in turn did the same until its beauty became available to everyone. Recently two more hybrids of the same cross have appeared on the scene, "Sheila Ann Germaney" is similar but without the yellow tints and "Frank Elder", which has larger, pale blue flowers with a slight greenish cast.

Iris x histrioides "Katharine Hodgkin" Iris x histriodes "Frank Elder"

 

When Anderson made his cross back before 1960 he made a mistake. For some reason he supposed that the pollen parent was the other yellow-flowering species I. danfordiae and not as it turned out, I. winogradowii. I. danfordiae is disjunctly distributed throughout the Turkish Anatolian Plateau and its exquisite yellow flowers are lightly spotted greenish-black in the throat. It has no standards to speak of, just some bristly vestiges between the falls. The commercial clone is less reliably perennial, having a tendency to split into many smaller bulbils, but deep planting, consistent feeding with potash and cold winters will put this right.

Iris danfordiae  This clone is also a triploid (it has an extra set of chrosomes) and consequentially is infertile. Frustrated by this, and recognizing the potential of the species in hybridizing, a young Canadian engineer, Alan McMurtrie, made a series of expeditions to Turkey during the mid 1980s to locate and eventually bring back fertile forms of I. danfordiae. Thirty years on and the results have been wonderful, almost magical, for he has created colors and accents that simply didn't exist before. Only a handful of these new plants have made it to the market so far but the following pictures of two of these are testimony to what's possible with hard work, patience, and most importantly, an artist's eye.

 

There are members of the reticulata tribe that gardeners will simply not see because of their rarity. These are usually difficult to grow, or native to remote and often troubled lands where access is nigh impossible. Nevertheless for those who collect, or like a challenge, seed is sometimes available through specialist societies like the Species Iris Group of North America (SIGNA) and the Species Group of the British Iris Society (BIS) or specialist seed suppliers, especially those in the Czech Republic. But a word of warning for those who live in Australia or New Zealand: Please check your respective country's permitted plant lists before ordering. If you don't you run the risk of having your seeds seized and destroyed - no questions asked.

Iris x dandordiae "Sea Green" Iris x danfordiae "Snow White"

 

Species to look out for include the pale blue, angular flowered I. vartanii from the Galilee region of Israel, recently offered on the Seeds for Peace website, and the intriguingly beautiful but capricious, I. pamphylica, which is alone in carrying its slender, soft blue, gold and olive-brown flowers on a stem. The previously mentioned I. winogradowii actually enjoys cooler, moister gardening conditions and is certainly possible to grow outdoors as is I. histrio from the Eastern Mediterranean.  At its best this species is one of the finest with large, powdery blue flowers marked and dotted with darker blue on the falls. It is earliest to flower, often emerging in late autumn, but it can suffer in severe winter conditions so siting is paramount. Hill View has occasionally offered what we consider the Creme de la creme form of this plant generously gifted to us by the great Australian plantsman, Otto Fauser. It was collected near Sofa in Lebanon many years ago.

Iris pamphylica

 

Reticulata iris should be planted in groups of odd numbers in free-draining, loamy, alkaline soil  about 15cm deep. These plants will not grow in clay or in very sandy conditions. If your soil is acid or neutral add a good handful of dolomite limestone per square metre. Feed with liquid nitrogen in the autumn and liquid potash or tomato food during the rest of their growth period.

 

Planting on the dry side of garden shrubs, stonewalls or large rocks affords the bulbs protection from the prevailing winter and provides dry but cool conditions during dormancy. They can be planted in pots but use deep ones and plant to the same depth as garden plantings. Feed well, don't let the bulbs dry out during the growing season and store the pot in cool but dry place during dormancy.

Iris winogradowii

These plants have a small number of serious pests and diseases so it’s best to take a few precautions. Mulch with gravel or rock chips after planting to dissuade slugs and snails, who consider emerging buds and leaves the gastropod equivalent of caviar. Mulching also reduces water splash onto flowers which can set up fungal infection. Clumps should be lifted and split up every three years to avoid congestion thus reducing the likelihood of disease. Only healthy firm bulbs should be replanted and dead, damaged or diseased-looking ones discarded or better still burned. All dried leaves from the previous season should be treated the same. If growing leaves are infected by botrytis then spray with an appropriate fungicide or copper sulphate to prevent the disease spreading.

Reticulata iris are great companion plants for other early flowering bulbs like crocus, cyclamen, early scillas and muscari and dwarf daffodils like Hoop petticoats, Narcissus cyclamineus and is hybrids. They also look good under deciduous shrubs such as Daphne mezureum, or Daphne bholua and around the skirts of the fragrant Wintersweet, Chimonanthus praecox. In the rock garden they are equally home pushing up through a carpet of thyme, or arabis or other creeping herbs and when paired with violas or violets in a container they make a happy combination.

Iris histrio from Lebanon

I still recall my first reticulata iris. It was "Harmony" . . . three brown, unpromising-looking things in a plastic mesh bag, most likely from the reject table at my local garden centre. I planted them rather inexpertly in a pot that was far too small and to my, and everybody else's, surprise, they came up in late winter. At first they were just pale green snouts barely out of the soil, then they became these strange blue, white and green unfurling things, a little like a bat's wing . . . all spokes and angles. Then suddenly they were perfect, exquisite flowers. So perfect that all I could do was just to sit and stare . . . How did they do that? How did they make a miracle?

My Francophile sister, who was visiting at the time, said in her very best accent that they were bijoux. I looked it up after she left: "small ornamental piece of delicate workmanship ; jewel ; something elegant or highly prized". She was right.

Now I have many reticulatas and every year when they come into flower I still get that same frisson of excitement . . . for they are my bijoux bulbs . . . winter's living jewels.

 

Special thanks to Jon Lonsdale who supplied the images for I. pamphylica, I. winogradowii and I. danfordiae. And to my good friends Fermi de Sousa for his image of I. "Sea Green" and Otto Fauser for providing provenance information regarding his I.histrio.

 

 

 

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Comments

That was a wonderful introduction to irises Marcus. The Iris pamphylica is simply beautiful - wispily shy and yet jewel-like. Thank you.

Hi Jacqui,

Thanks,  I am glad you like it. 

 

Iris pamphylica is a heart breaker. As you say it is such a delicate,  spidery thing and its colors are beguiling. But it is so hard to keep happy!  If only it could talk them it might be able to tell us what it wants. 

Sadly it is very rare in the wild now the subject of illegal collecting.

Cheers,  Marcus

Hello Marcus What a treat. Not just pretty pics, but good information on their origins providing a few ideas on how and where to grow them. How can an Iris so pretty end up with the name 'George', unless of course it was named after the new Prince. There must be some other obscure reason!

Hi Merylyn,

Thanks very much I'm glad you enjoyed, and was informed by, my piece.

Alas, it is one man who is soley responsible for the uninspiring, some would say boring, names of quite a number of the commercially available reticulata cultivars. Willem van Eeden was a giant among Dutch bulb breeders and he is the creator of "George" . . . and I believe of "Gordon" and "Edward". He improved a bit with "Natasha".

Alan McMurtrie writes about him in some of his notes to be found on his website: http://www.reticulatas.com/ but be warned his writing is dense and discursive so not easy to read in big bites.

Cheers, Marcus

Marcus, what an inspirational page. I reticulata cultivars just make my heart turn over whenever they come into flower in my garden on Mt Macedon! It is a sad day when they and the crocuses are over.

Hi Sue,

I am glad you enjoyed the piece. We obviously share the same feelings about them. I am in awe of how nature has constructed such elaborate structures just to attract a pollinator and reproduce! Obviously we humans are the lucky recipients of this process but plants would happily go on doing what they do whether we were there or not.

Cheers, Marcus

Thanks Marcus. Your descriptions are poetic and inspirational and your advice encourages me to try again. Unfortunately, one of my problems is birds removing flowers and buds. At least the bulbs should still be there. I loved your perennial list this late winter/early spring. Thanks. Claire

Hi Claire,

Thanks for your kind words. I am very pleased that you were inspired! 

Re birds: I have seen an interesting trick used in Greece. You use wooden skewers and drive them into the ground around the clumps and maybe a few in the clumps so they are sticking up like sharp pallisades. This prevents the birds from landing near on the clumps. Some people put reflective tape on the skewers but that might not appeal. Someone told me that they is a bird repellent gel on the market that sticks to their feet and irritates them enough to keep them away. 

 

Cheers,  Marcus

Thank you for your informative article. I have some of these little gems and during what has been a very cold winter here, seeing them in flower so early was just wonderful. The term "bijoux" is very apt. I will certainly be adding more to my collection!

Hi Beryl,

Thanks! Glad you liked it. Irises like the cold - the cooler the better. It is probably the single main reason why they fail to thrive or split into smaller bulbs. They come from places where they really do experience cold winters with snow on the ground. Most of us are growing them just on the edge of their tolerance but it can be a fine line. It is really important in this scenario to make sure that they are well fed and kept free of pests and diseases. 

Cheers,  Marcus

Dear Marcus, You write beautifully. I hope you are convalescing well. A book on irises would be a good project. Regards, Anne-Marie.

Hi Anne-Marie,

Thanks!  I am no expert on Iris. There are so many sections. It's one of the most successful plant groups on the planet. I like writing about what I know and I can assure you a lot of garden writers don't. Usually bloggers are a safer and more informed bet because they are hands on. 

I would like to write about another group of iris which probably are the most spectacular of all but unfortunately difficult. These are the oncocyclus iris which, along with the regelias, are called arils. There are some far better growers than me in Australia so maybe they might help out with some pictures and I can do it. 

Cheers,  Marcus

Hi Gabrielle,

Thanks!  Glad you liked it. 

Cheers,  Marcus

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