1866, The Iris by W. Robinson
The Gardeners' Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette p.388, April 28, 1866
It may be safely stated, that among all the plants now in cultivation, there is not a single genus more beautiful or more neglected than the Iris. They have not the brilliancy of Lilies, it is true, but for beauty and delicate variety of exquisite colour, they infinitely surpass them. They are thoroughly hardy, and of noble habit some of the finer species sending up when on rich light soil stems of magnificent flowers, which quite astonish those unacquainted with any but the common one I. germanica, the varieties of which by the way would yield no small amount of loveliness, even if no other species were cultivated. I know an enthusiastic and successful grower of Orchids who had a few fine species of Iris sent him. When established and in flower, he was not a little surprised, and declared them to be " finer than the Orchids ;" and undoubtedly their individual blooms are amongst the most beautiful of any plants that we grow. The Lilies have not been made so much of as ornamental plants as one could desire, but the good Irises do not appear to have got into cultivation at all, except in botanic gardens.
1 have seen such weedy plants as Lysimachia vulgaris and ciliata, and bad Michaelmas Daisies, in mixed borders, but not one of these. Can it be wondered at then that such gardening came into disrepute? The majority of gardeners know nothing of the beauty of Irises, from the fact that they have no opportunity of seeing them in a fair state. In botanic gardens they may be found, perhaps in the same bed for 20 years, and of course looking as ugly as possible, from the necessity or practice of keeping " likes together." Now I am confident that beds of the best kinds, introduced in proper situations in our gardens, would form as strikingly beautiful additions to our gardens for the early summer months as anything that can be devised.
First, then, for a glance at the best kinds. I cannot have made personal acquaintance with many species of this magnificent genus, as no doubt some have been lost and many never introduced, but I am familiar with quite enough to warrant all I say.
Iris ochroleuca is the tallest we cultivate, very distinct in habit, and of a pale yellow (describing from memory); it does grandly among low shrubs, where it is partially sheltered. I. pendulais a king among its fellows, with enormous flowers of soft pale blue, and borne freely on the stem; the plant quite hardy and free, best of course, like all its family, on a light rich and deep soil; this should be used for the centre of the bed or beds. I florentina, white, with a delicate suffusion of pale lilac, free, and comparatively common. I. variegata, dark shining brown and yellow, very beautiful and distinct. I have a large flowering variety of it, which came from Mr. Niven in which the yellow is yellower and the dark blacker, a rich and striking flower "as you could lay your eye on," as they say in Ireland.
I. germanica is known to almost everj-body, and is quite worthy of it. It is a favourite in London gardens, and perhaps makes the greatest show in them of any other plant. The front gardens along the Marylebone Road, and many others about London, are full of its handsome flowers in early summer. There are numerous pleasingly-coloured varieties of it. It often happens that when a single species of a genus becomes popular, as in this case, it is far ahead of its brethren in beauty, but this is not the case with I. germanica. Fine as it undoubtedly is, variegate and pallida altogether surpass it, not to mention others quite as good; besides, these species are thoroughly distinct. It would add great beauty to the homes of people who can only grow hardy plants if they were as common as germanica, and I trust these remarks may at least conduce to their being better known than they are at present. No one I am sure would be disappointed with them.
I. flavescens is a good kind, yellow,and about the size of germanica. I. amoena, or one sometimes called by that name, has delicately striped flowers, blue and white stripes, one of the prettiest I. Kaempferi is one I have not yet seen in flower, but the fuss made about its varieties, and the " mother plant '' as they call it, in the Dutch catalogues, leads one to have big hopes of them. I. subbiflora resembles germanica, but is of a dark violet colour valuable from that alone. I. Swertii is as delicately striped or variegated with blue and white as the most fastidious could desire. I. sambucina is a good and pretty well-known kind.
Of the dwarfs the Crimean Iris (I. pumila) leads the way; it has several very pretty varieties. I. cristata is perhaps not quite so easily cultivated, though it grows like a weed in some places ; it is a very beautiful dwarf. I. tenax is another tiny one, a great favourite of Mr. M'Nab's. These are quite enough 'for even the most enthusiastic cultivator to begin with.
To obtain the best possible results with such a batch, in a private garden, I would excavate a bed three feet, in some comparatively isolated green spot, where nothing need be interfered with, fill it vrith nch light soil, plant pallida, ochroleuca, and sambucina in the centre, the others I have named around them all mixed up equally finishing off with such of the dwarfs as could be got; and wait for the result. It is one about which there can be no doubt. The species would flower at different times, and there would be a fascinating display of beauty for weeks. The bed would require no further attention for years. There is hardly a garden but has unused spots in which such an arrangement could be made without interfering with any other object whatever. In a large place with winding walks, and little green glades here and there, several such beds might be made with great advantage.
I have omitted the bulbous Irises from the preceding remarks, because they are apt to dwindle away in our soil ; and I have also left out the charming reticulata, which should be favoured with a nice spot on the rockwork, at all events until sufficiently plentiful.
A. few of the best Lilies might even he mingled with he Irises; they would flower later, and keep the interest on through the summer, though the beauty afforded by the Irises alone could not fail to more than compensate for the very little trouble required. They, too, flower longer than some popular flowers we cultivate at considerable expense indoors. I do not think it would be wise to have beds of one kind, or two either, but have no doubt that the mixture of the larger kinds I have named would be as near perfection as possible, from the variety of colour and bloom, and a longer bloom would be secured from some kinds succeeding others. I would not be very particular about the dwarfs ; unless they found a very light, peaty, or other congenial soil, they might fail to be effective.
For more information on historic Irises visit the Historic Iris Preservation Society at