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On Irises by Sir Michael Foster

Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society of London p.131, 1889

on IRISES. By Professor Michael Foster, Sec. R.S. [Read May 14, 1889.]

A friend of mine is fond of calling Horticulture a "pious occupation," giving as his reason the old saying of the ancients: "The gods rejoice when they see a good man struggling with adversity"; and, indeed, I imagine that you are all ready to admit both that gardeners are good men, and that their occupation leads them to struggle with adversity. I, too, in my gardening, have had to struggle with adversity, and to-day I feel that the struggle is especially severe. When I promised to say a few words to-day on Irises, I hoped that I should have before me abundance of specimens to illustrate What I had to say. But, alas! the season, like most seasons of our experience, has proved an adverse one, and I have to struggle against the difficulty of having nearly a bare table before me. My friends at Kew and at Cambridge, and Mr. Barr, have kindly helped me as best they could. But the fact is very few Irises are as yet in bloom, and most of the few in bloom have been spoilt by the rain. However, I must make the best of a bad bargain, and, taking refuge in an old nursery expedient, make believe, and ask you to make believe, that the Irises of which I am about to speak are really here.
Let me first of all, as a sort of rejoinder to the saying of my friend which I quoted just now, remind* you that gardening, especially that kind of gardening which the Royal Horticultural Society, in the midst of all its ups and downs, has done so much to foster, may more properly be called an impious occupation. For what does the gardener, especially the gardener who cherishes hardy perennial and bulbous plants, do? He makes every effort to gather from all parts of the world plants living in the most diverse climates, on the most diverse soils, and amid the most diverse circumstances, and tries to grow them all together in the same small plot of ground which he calls his garden, under the same climate (if we dare to call the meteorological conditions which obtain in England by such an honourable name as climate), under conditions which we can vary very little, and in soil which at best we can only superficially alter by adding or taking away a barrowful of this or that. This is at least what I try to do with the Iris. There are some two hundred or so kinds of Iris growing under the most diverse circumstances, scattered over the temperate zone of the old world and the new; and I am making every effort to get every one of these two hundred to live huddled together in a little spot in Cambridgeshire. Now, whatever theoretical view we may take as to how the several different kinds or species of plants first came into existence, there can be no doubt that each kind thrives and maintains its existence because it is more or less suited to the particular conditions amid which we find it living in a wild state. The glorious diversity of plant life is a token of Nature's care to adapt the individual plants to the diversity of conditions which obtains on the globe. But the plants which Nature has thus put asunder, in order that each might avail itself of special conditions, the impious gardener, flying in the face of Providence, tries to sweep together into a common prison, where the conditions for each are all alike, and for the majority of these distinctly bad. Is it to be wondered, then, that floral treasures, collected from afar with great trouble and expense, pine in their exile for the air and the soil of their native home, and after throwing out a feeble bloom, or not even that, faint, fade away, and are no more?
We gardeners may, however, lessen our impiety and gain a corresponding reward in the shape of success if, as far as lies in our power, we strive to surround our favourites with the features of the home from which they have been taken. It is, I take it, the duty of a gardener, who desires to grow in his garden a plant brought from afar, to learn as much as he can of its habits and surroundings in its native home, and to imitate these as far as he can. This leading, let me warn you, is not always a true one. Plants have their misfortunes as men have.

Many a plant may be found growing wild in a spot and under conditions which are not those for which it is really adapted. Many a plant has been driven by stress of fortune from its proper place, and may be found, with its back against the wall, so to speak, fighting against adverse circumstances, and often maintaining with difficulty the very barest existence. Still such plants are, on the whole, exceptions, not the rule; and we may safely take as the gardener's guide the maxim: If we want a plant to seem at home, try and make for it a home like that in which it was found.
In many cases the plant itself, by its very features, will give you directions as to how you ought to treat it. This is at least often the case with Irises. Let me in illustration of this call your attention to the Iris which I now hold in my hand, and which belongs to a group of Irises of which the well-known I. germanica may perhaps be taken as the type [specimen shown]. Look at the broad swordlike, ensiform leaves, protected on the one side and on the other by a fairly thick cuticle. This tells us that the plant does not fear the sunlight, but can probably enjoy with profit the sun's directest rays. Look at these long, simple, scanty roots. Their simple, cord-like form and their fewness tell us that the plant used them to gather in ordinary nourishment, and not to suck up large and frequent draughts of water. And this thick underground stem or rhizome, in which a large store of elaborated food can be garnered, and in which a supply of water can be held, tell us the same tale. Obviously this plant is one which does not seek damp shady places, but loves the full light of the sun, which is accustomed to a not too generous soil, and which, thanks to its fleshy rhizome and sturdy leaves, is prepared to meet periods of not inconsiderable drought. Its characters suggest that it is at home on some sunlit rocky bank or hill-side, where its roots can run about in somewhat dry and not too fertile loam. And it is in some such spots in the south of Europe and elsewhere that we find it growing wild.
It may possibly strike some of my hearers as strange that I should talk of Irises at all as growing by preference in dry, sunny places, for it is a very common opinion that all Irises need a damp, even if not a shady situation. This opinion is the result of the wrong application of a most admirable principle, that of drawing general conclusions from the facts which come under our observation. The principle is admirable only so long as the facts are sufficiently numerous, it becomes faulty if the facts are too few. Now in England the facts as to the habits of wild Irises are very few indeed. We possess in this country only two wild Irises, I. Pseudacorus and I. foetidissima, and it so happens that the former does love damp, in fact really wet situations, growing best as it does by river sides, while the latter thrives in the shade. But these two Irises are quite exceptional in their habits. Of all the many species belonging to the genus Iris something like sixty per cent, love dry, sunny situations; indeed, for some of them, as I shall presently point out, no spot can be too sunny or too dry. And as to shade, my experience leads me to believe that I. foetidissima is the only one species in the whole genus which really does well in shady places; all the rest, including those that need water at their feet, enjoy and benefit by the fullest sunshine on their heads – indeed, for the most part pine away in the absence of it.
But to return. Compare with the I. germanica which I have just shown you another Iris of a different group "specimen shown]. You see that so far from possessing a conspicuous fleshy rhizome it has a wholly insignificant one, so small that you have to tear the plant to pieces before you can be sure that any at all is present. Look at this thick bush of matted branching roots running out in narrow filaments in every direction, and bringing the plant in touch with almost every point of the area of soil in which it grows. And note in company with these numerous fine roots the abundant but thin, narrow, flaccid leaves, so different from the broad stout swords of I. germanica. These facts tell us that this Iris is a water-loving plant, accustomed to a steady, ample supply of moisture diffused through the soil, whence the numerous tiny rootlets can pump it up to satisfy the thin grassy foliage. Without such a constant supply these thin leaves would soon flag, and the abundance of rootlets indicates that the water is not brought to it in flushing streams, but has to be extracted with labour out of the soil itself. The features of the plant suggest to us that its native home is in some rich meadow where the water, without becoming visible on the surface as a marsh, may be found in adequate abundance in the soil below. And the suggestion is a true one, for this is
I. sibirica, which, from its most favourite habitats, might fitly be called the " Meadow Iris."Indeed, I. pratensis is one of the names which has been given to it.
Here, again, is a third Iris belonging to still another group [specimen shown]. The abundant rootlets show that it too loves water; but the plant has a rhizome which, though not so fleshy as that of I. germanica, is still thick and considerable, and the leaves, though longer and narrower than those of I. germanica, are still stout and swordlike. May we not infer from these facts that this Iris, though it loves water, cannot secure a constant supply, that it lives on the banks of some stream or pool whence it can generally satisfy its thirst, but in seasons of drought, when the water sinks or even fails, when the river runs low or the swamp dries up, is helped by its stout leaves and bulky rhizome to hold on until water comes again. In doing so we shall not be far wrong, for this is our wild I. pseudacorus, which might fitly be called the swamp or river Iris.
These three Irises whose characters thus tell us, to a certain extent at all events, how to try and grow them, may be taken as representatives of three large and distinct groups of Irises. For the whole genus may be divided into several distinct groups, the members of which are more closely allied to each other than to members of the other groups. It will be impossible for me today to treat of all these groups, I must confine myself to a few only.
Let me take first of all the group to which the I. germanica which I have already shown, the well-known blue flag, belongs, and begin with a few words about I. germanica itself.
The distribution of I. germanica is exceedingly wide. We find it reaching from the west of Spain and Portugal right through southern and middle Europe to Asia Minor, and thence through Persia right away to Nepaul. I have not us yet obtained any evidence of its occurring wild any further east. Along all this wide range it varies very little. The form which grows in Nepaul bears a very large and handsome flower, and has been called I. nepalensis, but in all essential respects is identical with the European form. A similar large form is abundant, and appears to grow wild in Persia. Another large form of somewhat different colour is found in Asia Minor, and has recently been distributed for cultivation as I. asiatica, or more correctly I. germanica var. asiatica. I have received from Asia Minor also two other very distinct and handsome varieties, which I have called var. Siwas and var. Amas, since they were collected in the districts respectively called Siwas and Amasia. And in some of the forms growing wild in Italy both standards and falls, that is, both inner and outer perianth segments, instead of being of different tints of blue purple, are of more or less the same hue of red purple. One of these has been distributed as I. Kochii (Kerner), and is often sent out under the erroneous name of I. subbiflora, and another has been called by Todaro I. australis. There are thus in existence many wild varieties; but these do not, in my judgment at least, differ from each other by specific characters; they are all varieties of the one species I. germanica.
The plant is one which appears to be – and to have long been – a favourite of man. You will find it in the gardens of nearly all civilised nations along the temperate zone; it adorns the cottage of the English labourer and the walls of the Persian town. It has been brought to the English garden from abroad, but the French or Italian peasant has often transferred it from the mountain rock to his house-side. Conversely it has often escaped from the cultivated garden to the wild hill- side, and undoubtedly in its wide distribution along the temperate zone the hand of man has played no inconsiderable part. Along the range I have mentioned, from West Spain to Nepaul, it is, with local exceptions, the most widespread species of Iris. If in a ramble in South Europe you come upon a broad-leaved Iris growing wild on the hills, the chances are nearly ten to one that it will prove to be I. germanica. You will observe that I repeatedly say "hillside"; for it is on sunny slopes, where, between rocks, it finds an adequate patch of good, but not too rich loamy soil, where it has not to fight against trees and shrubs which smother its leaves and scape, or against rank grass, which robs its rhizomes of the kindly maturing, rot- preventing influences of the sun's rays, that it finds a fitting home.
But, as I said, I. germanica, with all its varieties (and I mean the true varieties, not the falsely so-called varieties, of which I shall speak presently) is only one member of a large group. Very closely allied is the handsome and fragrant I. Biliottii of Central Asia Minor, and the very closely allied, perhaps still more handsome and fragrant, I. trojana of Western Asia Minor. The typical white, broad-leaved Iris, I. florentina of Italy, which is really not white but faintly blue, and the more purely white I. albicans, which is found in Spain, but also grows in the Mediterranean islands and the West Coast of Asia Minor (and which has been distributed as a white I. germanica, as well as under fancy names such as "The Bride" and " Prince of Wales "), differ from I. germanica, besides the point of colour, in features, which, though of specific value, are not very striking. Rather farther removed, but still not very distant, is the white Iris of the East, which is a favourite ornament of Turkish cemeteries and Persian gardens, and which, in many cases at all events, is a variety of I. kashmiriana, the wild white Iris of Kashmir, though I am inclined to think from recent observations may be in some cases a new distinct species. Some of these Eastern white Irises are very apt to develop, under certain conditions, more or less purple colour, and this is especially the case with a very distinct, creamy-white variety of I. kashmiriana from Kandahar, which I described some few years ago as I. Bartoni.
Still farther removed from the typical I. germanica is the dark wild Iris of South Europe, known under the several names of I. squalens, I. sambucina, and I. lurida, all of which in my opinion ought to be considered as not more than varieties of one species, for which the older name of sambucina should be reserved. The name sambucina was given because the flowers of this species often possess the odour of the elder; but it is a mistake to regard this as a specific test, for in Irises, as in so many other plants, the possession of fragrance is most fitful; of two individuals, not only belonging to the same species, but also alike in all other outward respects, one may be exceedingly fragrant and the other possess no odour whatever.
Passing another step away from our type we come to I. pallida, the beautiful light blue Iris of Southern and South-eastern Europe. This Iris, which, by its denser inflorescence, the form of its perianth segments, and the characters of its capsule and seed, differs more distinctly from those which I have already mentioned than these do from each other, is very variable, not in the exact tints and markings of the flower, but in size and stature. An exceedingly large and handsome variety, growing wild in Dalmatia and Montenegro, is known as the variety dalmatica. On the other hand a very small dwarf form growing on Monte Cengialto, near Roveredo, in the South Tyrol, and hence known as I. Cengialti, is in all essential respects an Iris pallida, and cannot be distinguished from the type by any adequate specific characters. It possibly may be a natural hybrid, but in that case the feature! of the pallida parent wholly overshadow those of the other parent. And between the giant Dalmatian pallida and the dwarf I. Cengialti pallida may be placed a whole series running down almost without a break from the one to the other, and exhibiting much variety in the depth of the blue of the flowers as well as in their form and markings.
All these must be considered as really coming within the species pallida. Some of these forms of I. pallida are deliciously fragrant, and hence Jacquin called a form of it I. odoratissima; but some have no odour at all, and the same batch of seed, gathered wild, has, in my hands, produced seedlings both exquisitely sweet, wholly inodorous, and having a distinctly unpleasant smell. Specifically different from, but closely allied to, I. pallida is the large and handsome I. cypriana, from Cyprus, and I have reason to think that Asia Minor contains still other species also closely allied to, but also sufficiently distinct from, the typical pallida.
Still another step brings us up to the bright yellow variegated Iris of Hungary and South-eastern Europe, I. variegata, which, in spite of its colour, is much more nearly allied to I. pallida than to I. sambucina.
All these various species, all belonging to the same general group, all need the same general treatment, all demand a bright sunny situation, with a fair, but not more than fair, supply of not too fertile loam. All hate to be shaded in summer or water-logged in winter, and show their dislike by first refusing to flower and ultimately taking themselves away. Some, of course, are more sensitive than others. I. germanica or I. sambucina will live or even thrive in a situation which will kill I. pallida outright; but they all do best where they are bathed in sunlight rather than by water.
Some of you perhaps are wondering why I say nothing of what are called sometimes German Irises,' sometimes varieties of I. germanica, among which many very beautiful flowers are to be seen. It is rather unfortunate that these should be spoken of under the name of I. germanica, since, as far as I can judge, none of them are in any way varieties of I. germanica, or, indeed, have anything to do with I. germanica proper. The results of my own hybridisation and considerations based on the characters and habits of these " German Irises," have led me to the conclusion that they are all hybrids or sports of the three species – I. pallida, I. sambucina, I. variegata. The beautifully marked and sweetly fragrant I. plicata or I. Swertii, of which there are several varieties in the trade under fancy names such as " Madame Chéreau," is, I am confident, a seedling of I. sambucina crossed with I. pallida; and I. neglecta and I. amoena are similarly of hybrid origin. The beautiful Iris known as " Queen of the May " is I. pallida, with the smallest possible infusion of the blood of I. sambucina. Out of one cross between a not quite pure I. variegata, that is to say, an I. variegata which contained some sambucina blood, I raised a large number of plants, among which I could recognise not only typical neglecta, but a very large number of the various types of the German Iris of our nurseries. But I shall have presently to return to the results of hybridisation. All these hybrid forms demand the same treatment as their parents.
I spoke just now of I. Cengialti as being a dwarf form of I. pallida. I possess an analogous dwarf form of I. variegate gathered on the Balkan Mountains. What is often called I. subbiflora is a somewhat dwarfed form of I. germanica; and I believe dwarf forms of I. sambucina also exist. But these dwarf forms, in spite of their small stature, retain all the essential features of the taller, more typical forms; they are stunted members of the I. germanica group. Let me now direct your attention to a group of Irises coming next to the germanica group, the members of which are never other than dwarf. Their foliage is small, and their scape, bearing a few flowers only – often three, or even two only – rarely exceeds a foot and a half in height. There are several Irises of this kind found in South Europe. One of them was called by Linnaeus biflora, meaning in reality bis florens, twice flowering, because it is very apt to throw up a second late bloom in autumn; and it is convenient to speak of the whole group as the "biflora" group.
As far as I can make out there are some three or four fairly distinct, that is, specifically distinct, Irises belonging to this group: one, which when it bears deep-coloured flowers always seems to me very handsome, was called by Lamarck I. nudicaulis, because the scape is not, as in so many other Irises, clothed and indeed hidden with clasping leaves, but seems to rise as a "naked" stem straight up from the rhizome. This plant, which varies in its tint of purple, has also been called I. bohemica. It grows in South-eastern Europe, and I cannot as yet distinguish from it any separate I. hungarica. One special feature of the plant is that it loses its leaves early and entirely, so that for the greater part of the winter the rhizome is hidden under ground, or shows only quite dormant buds. In Italy there is found an allied form, differing from the above in having the scape more or less clothed with leaves at the base, as well as in other features; and it is this which I usually find labelled " nudicaulis "' in collections. In Portugal occurs still another form, with larger and fewer flowers than the above, sometimes bearing only one or two, the I. sub-biflora of Britero. The character of flowering a second time in autumn is one on which no great stress ought to be laid; whether it occurs or not depends a good deal on the season, and is much more special to particular plants than a constant feature of any one form. Some of the dwarf forms of I. pallida, more or less allied to Cengialti, frequently flower again in the autumn, as, indeed, do other kinds of Iris also.
This group of I. biflora passes almost insensibly through the yellow I. lutescens, the whitish I. virescens, to I. italica and I. olbiensis, and so to I. pseudo-pumila, I. chamaeiris, and I. pumila. Of these, the rarest in our gardens, and apparently not very common in a wild state in Europe, is what I may call the true I. pumila, characterised by a single flower, with a very long tube, three, four, or five times as long as the ovary, borne on a scape which is so short that it is never visible above the leaves. In I. Chamaeiris, which is an inhabitant of the South of France, the tube is much shorter, the scape is often visible, and the plant goes to seed much more freely than does the true pumila.
Most of the plants which I find in collections labelled " pumila " are either forms of Chamaeiris or hybrids, or belong to some division other than pumila of this dwarf group. I must not stop now to discuss the characters of the several members of this group, but I may say this much – As you pass from the South of France through Italy towards the East, you may gather wild a number of Irises, which, when you look at them individually, appear quite different from each other, and yet are so allied to each other, and pass so gradually from one set of features to another, that it becomes most difficult, if not impossible, to arrange them satisfactorily under any list of acknowledged names – under, for instance, the list given by Mr. Baker, who, as you all know, has done so much to extend and correct our knowledge of Irises. Many of these wild forms have been introduced into our collections. They have been cultivated in our gardens for two or three centuries; there they have seeded, and, indeed, have been propagated by seed. In seeding they have sported, and, moreover, bear obvious signs of having undergone hybridisation. The result is, that when you come to a large collection like that of Mr. Barr, or Mr. Ware, or Mr. Backhouse, or others of our nurserymen who cultivate this genus, you find an immense number of obviously distinct forms belonging to this group alone, of which I am now speaking, that is to say, forms so distinct, that the nurseryman must have a name by which he may sell them in such a way that the purchaser knows what he is buying, and yet you cannot – that is to say, I cannot – name them all according to received and acknowledged names. I am doing my best to form some idea of how they ought to be called, and how they ought to be arranged, and do not despair of eventually "getting them in shape." But much has yet to be done. The first step is to be quite sure as to which are the actual wild forms; and I may here take this opportunity of reminding such of my readers as are fond of travelling abroad, that they can much assist my labours, and afford me much gratification, if, when in their walks or drives abroad, they come upon any Iris undoubtedly growing wild, that is in situations in which it is unlikely that it can have escaped from a garden, they would kindly not dig up the whole plant (for I quite share the views of those who think that many beautiful wild plants have quite difficulties enough to struggle against, without feeling the blow of man's hand), but just to break off a piece of the rhizome with a few roots upon it, to wrap the piece up dry in a piece of brown paper, with a label stating the exact habitat, and to drop it in the nearest post office, addressed to me at Shelford, Cambs.

Allow me here, just for a moment, to turn aside to say a few words about hybridisation among Irises. There can be no doubt that Irises hybridise with tolerable readiness. I have already referred to the so-called German Irises being, to a large extent, of hybrid origin, and I have raised several hybrids myself. Here is one [specimen shown] between two Irises, quite a long way apart, I. Chamaeiris and the species I. iberica, about which I shall shortly say a word. Not only have I the whole history of the crossing, but the plant itself betrays its origin by its features. I have also raised a number of hybrids, some not without beauty, by crossing I. balkana with I. Cengialti; these I described some few years back in the Gardeners' Chronicle. And I have many other hybrids in various stages, some of which I hope may prove not unwelcome additions to our gardens. Besides the " German Irises" of which I just now spoke, several other plants in our collections are clearly of hybrid origin. There is, for instance, one very sturdy free -flowering fragrant dwarf Iris, which would be really beautiful if it were not so blotchy in colour, called sometimes "I. biflora gracilis,'" and sometimes "I. pumila gracilis." This is, I am sure, a hybrid between I. virescens and I. nudicaulis; it bears on itself the marks of I. virescens, and I have raised from the seed of it nearly typical I. nudicaulis. Irises, then, do hybridise, and that pretty freely, especially, perhaps, in the group of which I am speaking now, and it is more than probable that some of the wild forms, as certainly many of the cultivated forms, are of hybrid origin, and if so, ought to bear corresponding names.
Returning now to the group of dwarf Irises on which I have dwelt so long, let me end my story about them by saying that whatever their names, and whether we can name them satisfactorily or no, the principles which I laid down at the beginning of my talk may be applied directly to them. Everything about them tells us that like the germanica group, and much more so than that group, these dwarf Irises, whether of the biflora group or the still dwarfer forms, need a somewhat scanty, not too rich soil, and a full exposure to all the sunshine which they can ever get in this country. They show individual proclivities of course.

The large-flowered rich purple, or yellow, or whitish dwarf Iris, growing near Hyeres, and known as I. olbiensis, profits more by a damp soil, or rather perhaps subsoil, than the others. But taking the group as a whole, if you wish them to flourish, be happy, and flower, let your first care be to choose for them a site in which they shall feel as little as possible the winter rains of our so often weeping England. Plant them upon a bank on which in winter the sun's rays will if possible fall during all those few hours in which we then see his face, and do not be afraid if, in the glare of some unusually summerlike summer, they appear to wither and to faint. Withering in winter often means rot and decay, but withering in full summer for these Irises with thick fleshy rhizomes means reculer pour mieux sauter : the goodness of the leaves shrinks back into the rhizome to appear in the coming spring in the purple and gold of the flower.
I have spoken so far chiefly of the Irises of Europe. Some of them, as I have said, are also found in Asia, and the Asian specimens, in many instances, differ but slightly or not at all from the European ones. There grows in the Caucasus an I. pumila identical with the European pumila, the Asian I. germanica is distinguished by slight tokens only from the European I. germanica, and I can see no difference whatever between I. albicans from Smyrna and that from Spain. Moreover, there are Irises special to Central Asia not found in Europe, which nevertheless present all the characteristics of the European group of I. germanica. I have already mentioned I. Biliottii and I. kashmiriana; to these I may add I. Alberti, which betrays its Asian nature in its strange colour, but not to any great extent otherwise. In the hot arid regions of Asia is, however, found a very special and very remarkable group of Irises called the Oncocyclus group, because the perianth segments, both the standards and the falls, are very often round and curved, possessing a spherical curvature like that of a shield.
Of this group, which stretches from Palestine and the Egyptian desert through Asia Minor and Persia to Afghanistan, where it fades away, the large and striking form called I. susiana is probably well known to you all. This, which has been cultivated in our gardens for centuries, Parkinson describing it as the great Turkey, or Chalcedonian, or Guinea Hen Floure de Luce (the reason of the first name being that the plant was introduced into Europe from Constantinople, and of the second the peculiar colouring of the flower), derives its name from the old province of Susis on the western borders of Persia, where it is said to grow wild. I have never as yet received any wild plant, and I am not aware of any collected specimens having been introduced into Europe for many years past. All the plants of this species in our gardens appear to be descendants of individuals long cultivated in Europe. Even more beautiful and striking than I. susiana is the somewhat smaller I. iberica, so called from its dwelling in Iberia, not of Spain but of the Caucasus. We are now acquainted with several other members of this group, I. paradoxa, I. acutiloba, I. sari, I. Heylandiana, I.Helenae, 1. lupina, I. atropurpurea, I. Barnumae, and others; but the finest and grandest is the new I. Gatesii, introduced by my friend Mr. Max Leichlin, from the mountains of Armenia, and named after my friend the Rev. E. S. Gates, of the American Mission at Mardin, who has been most indefatigable in assisting endeavours to secure the floral treasures of that remarkable district. If you imagine a flower, often very much larger than that even of I. susiana, of a delicate light gray hue, resulting from minute dots and delicate veins of rich purple on a creamy white ground, or at times of a pure light sky blue, marked with deeper veins, and at the same time of peculiar grace in form, you will readily conceive that a striking addition has been made to the beauty of our gardens.
Very closely allied to the Oncocyclus group is a group of bearded Irises, which, since they form a very distinct family by themselves, and since we owe our knowledge of them very largely to the exertions of the venerable Director of the Botanic Gardens at St. Petersburg, I have proposed to call the Regelia group. These are bearded Irises, the scape generally bearing two or sometimes three flowers ; but they are in all respects very different from the European biflora group. Some of them, such as I. korolkowi, possess singular beauty, and all of them are striking, though some of them, such as I. suwarowi, cannot be expected to become florists' favourites.
These Irises of the Regelia group have their home in Central Asia, in Turkestan, and in Bokhara, and, like the members of Oncocyclus group, are found for the most part on hot hillsides, pushing their long cord-like scanty roots a long way into the arid, gritty, or sometimes sandy soil on which they grow. In winter the cold of the air above them is far below that of an ordinary English winter; but they feel it not, for they are then peacefully at rest and dormant, covered and protected by a warm white shawl of snow, which shields them against both the cold of night and the alluring heat of a bright winter's sun. When the snow melts in spring they suddenly awake to a hurried life, made almost furious as the quickly-increasing heat of the mounting sun, working in the laboratories of their fresh young leaves, turns into wine the water which they readily draw from the stores supplied by the melting snows. Unfolding their always striking and often gorgeous flowers, they hold them up aloft to be seen by the equally strange insects which are flitting about beneath the same strong sun. Such a bright life must needs be brief. The water is soon gone, the leaves grow flabby, wither, and die, and long before the summer sun has run his course, the plant, exhausted with its dance of spring, has sunk into a summer slumber, from which it peacefully passes into its winter's sleep.
If, as 1 said at the beginning of my remarks, it ought to be the gardener's care to imitate, as far as lies in his power, the conditions under which the plant which he wishes to grow lives in its native home, is it to be wondered that the Irises of this group are the despair of the English gardener ? How can we imitate conditions such as I have just sketched in a country like our own, where the rain comes down in torrents in mid-winter and at harvest time, but needs praying for in spring, where the days in winter are often summer-like, and the days in summer are made dreary by winter-like skies and chilled by wintry blasts, and where the best that can be said of the weather is that it can never disappoint us because we never know what to expect ?
Indeed, we cannot look for more than a moderate success in attempting to cultivate Irises belonging to these two groups. There are, it is true, more things in the plant and in the soil than are dreamt of in the latest philosophy of our newest botany, and in some happy gardens these Irises will, I know, not only grow, but flourish and smile with content under conditions which must be wholly different from those obtaining in their native home, but which, for some reasons as yet hidden from us, are suited to the plants. Such conditions are not to be found in my own poor garden, and I can only secure success, and that a very limited one, by a clumsy imitation of a Central Asia climate. The principle of this I learnt from the Gardening

- BobPries - 2015-02-19
Topic revision: r3 - 14 Mar 2017, af.83
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