1885, Iris Pumila and its Allies by Michael Foster

The Garden p.17, January 10, 1885


A GREAT many persons give the name I. pumila to any low-growing dwarf-bearded Iris with a very short stalk bearing one or at most two flowers of somewhat small size. But anyone can see that the various forms thus indiscriminately called I. pumila differ a good deal from each other; and indeed this is recognised by the numerous names used in gardens to denote many so-called varieties of I. pumila; and when we come to consult the botanists we find that many of these forms are considered by them as distinct species clearly separable from pumila. Of all these dwarf Irises perhaps the least common in our gardens is the real typical pumila, most of the plants called pumila belonging properly to one or other of the other species. The tendency of botanical study has been, in fact, to restrict more and more the application of the term pumila. Thus, while according to some of the older writers, I. pumila occurs abundantly over a very wide area, stretching from the south of France, through Southern Europe, along the Caucasus, to North-central Asia, and even reaching to Siberia, successive authors have limited its range. In the south of France, for instance, what was once called pumila is now recognised as either I. Chamaeiris or I. olbiensis. In Italy it has been supplemented by I. italica, I. pseudo-pumila, and I. panomitana, and it is exceedingly probable that many of the plants in Central and Eastern Asia which have been called pumila are in reality specifically different.

It would be hardly worth while to discuss here the characters distinguishing them and other forms from pumila. But I may mention that the plant most commonly confounded in this country with I. pumila is I. Chamaiiris, and that among the points of difference between the two insisted upon by Spach perhaps the most striking is that whereas in I. pumila there is no stalk at all, or one so short and covered by leaves as not to be visible naturally, Chamaeiris has a distinct stalk carried above the sheathing leaves, and hence naked and visible. A curious physiological difference exists also between the two; I. Chamaeiris seeds freely, but I. pumila very rarely goes to seed; and hence by seeding, the former has, on the one hand, become more common as a cultivated plant, and on the other has broken out into several varieties.

The relations of I. pumila are not uninteresting. On the one hand, it passes almost insensibly through I. Chamaeiris, I. olbiensis, &c., into the bifiora group, and then to the ordinary tall bearded Irises. On the other hand, it may be traced through such forms as the I. melitta of the Balkans and the closely allied I. rubro-marginata of Asia Minor into the fugacious arenaria group, several members of which show curious affinities with some of the dwarf forms of beardless Irises.

As a garden plant I. pumila in its several varieties is of value on account of its early and profuse blooming. A good large clump, or, better still, a whole bed of it, in full flower on some bright, warm April morning, the fresh, bright green, short foliage almost covered with blue or purple flowers, affords a very pleasing sight. Unfortunately, each bloom is soon gone, and though this is partly made up for by the number of successive flowers, the whole period of beauty lasts a comparatively short time. But there is this to be said that when out of flower the plant is not ugly; the short swords of the foliage have a beauty, of their own, lasting well nigh throughout the year.

As regards their culture, little need be said save that they must have, if they are to flower well, some warm, dry, sunny spot. Coming from the sunny south, they need all the sun they can get in our dull clime. While growing fast in spring water is very acceptable to them, but it is death to them to be waterlogged in winter; and their fleshy rhizomes tell us that a good baking in summer will turn the energy, which might otherwise be wasted in leaf, into bloom buds for the coming year. A place on the rockery or some clear spot in the border, where the sun can always reach and whence surplus water can readily flow away, is their proper home. As to soil, they do not seem to me to be very fastidious, though they appear to do best in a sandy loam, enriched by leaf-mould, rotten manure, or peat, so as to increase the humus constituents of the ground. But their food must be in proportion to the sunlight which they catch. In a dull damp spot, rich food will only furnish leaf and rapidly lead growth on to decay. In a bright warm corner in some happy place, and where the sun shines and burns in summer, their extra food will be turned into fuller bloom. One word more; if a plant has found its right place, never move it. Like other Irises, I. pumila dislikes being divided and transplanted ; constant meddling with it is the best way to ensure its never blooming. M. F.

For more information on historic Irises visit the Historic Iris Preservation Society at

-- BobPries - 2014-09-30
Topic revision: r1 - 30 Sep 2014, BobPries
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