(1901) A New Race Of Hardy Alpine Irises by Caparne

The Garden p.327, November 16, 1901


MANY years ago when struggling with the difficulties of a newly-made, bare, exposed, and wind-swept piece of ground in the Midlands, which, as it surrounded the house, had to be called "garden,'' a title which made eminently for both courtesy and hope, for there were no trees, and my predecessors had called it "cornfield," I took up very vigorously the study of Irises, with the help of Mr. J. G. Baker's papers on the subject, which had appeared in the Gardeners' Chronicle, and are now- available with much added matter in his estimable monograph "Irideaa" The collection of every known or available species of bearded Iris, both tall and dwarf, was an essential starting point, not to speak of the other groups at present.

These soon showed that they had a congenial home, and brought prominently into notice the virtues of that little race of dwarfs which were chiefly located under the heads of puniila, biflorus, italica, olbiensis, and chamaeiris. Pumila itself I afterwards found to be a rare and almost non-existent plant, the name being a sort of catch-word; indeed, there was much confusion of nomenclature, each representing the other in different quarters, but they were charming plants and had undeniable possibilities. Shortly after that stage I had the --Foster, to whose valuable aid and advice I am indebted for all the good which I have been able to do with hybridising, illustrating, and growing Iris. Many a new, rare, and unique species came into action, flowers only of some which, however, after being painted, gave up their pollen, plants of others, and now hybridising apace, that is for Iris, for they often take three or four years to germinate from seed, and another three or four to arrive at blooming size, so that one's second cross was some years ahead. The results were satisfactory, many greatly improved flowers, both in colour, habit, shape, and number of flowers. This last item was important, for although nothing could be more floriferous than the earliest members of the section, yet they had but one flower to the stem, so that the display, although most gay and effective, was short lived. The aim here was to get two or more flowers on the spathe and so double the time of flowering. Others again had short stalks, too short for cutting. These being crossed with long-stalked species gave the desired medium habit, with the flowers thrown up well above the foliage.

Changes and additions in colour were arrived at, that as a painter being a subject very near to one's heart; but what makes colour in flowers, how did they reconcile amongst themselves in their own internal economies the obvious discrepancies between the painter's palette of pigments and the scientist's results of the spectrum! I worked upon the pigment theory and hoped for the best, but needless to say Nature had lier own way, and often, instead of something brilliant and all-convincing, gave back just the old original species intact, so that although many of one's wishes have come true, there still remains the strong conviction that colour after all is the " gift of the gods." Nature is so addicted to the unsuspected that there is no getting beyond her. She produces brilliant scarlet, for instance, by laying a thin tissue of dingy, semi-transparent purple upon an opaque pure white ground: this outwits both the artist with his colour theories and the scientist with his spectrum, and to this day we are no nearer to a scarlet Iris than we ever have been. We can get the opaque white ground, we can get the thin transparent purple, but how to get that scarlet is quite another matter.

Yet there is some principle which makes towards it, for the "beard," that imposing piece of sham anther which calls loudly to the passing insect by reason of its yellow-orange colour, often reaches in the interior of the flower a very brilliant orange-scarlet. As it has no intention of giving any of the wished-for pollen to the insect who came for it as well as for honey, why does it keep up its interest by stimulating an undoubted preference which the bee must have for bright orange?

But, to return, in Irises, as in Roses, we may have crimsons, we may have yellows and oranges also, but a good definite red which has no bias to the blue side of the spectrum is desired. Once this is obtained, crosses with yellow and orange will produce scarlet and salmon - reds instead of the bronzes and tricolor tints which these effects produce now. Thus far the artist's palette theory has worked out in practise to a fair measure of success.

To describe these new dwarf alpine hybrid Irises one must say that they are rhizomatous plants with practically evergreen leaves, some 6 inches and 8 inches long (perhaps 3 inches or 4 inches at flowering time), and 1/2 inch to 1 inch in width, growing in tufts: the flowers are produced in early spring as soon as the weather breaks and will allow of growth. They are large, often larger than the plant which produces them, standing some (6 inches, 8 inches, and in the tallest varieties 10 inches high, with stiff succulent stalks, which enable them to remain fresh when cut for a considerable time. In colour they range from purest of whites, white and cream, white and yellow, pale primrose selfs, through yellows to rich yellow with orange. Many have orange beards. Then porcelain, pale sky--blue, deep blues, violets, lavenders. purples to black and bronzes, pure crimsons and claret both in self colours and in combination with blues and purples. Each flower lasts in perfection for from three to six day's.

As for situation they are perfectly hardy, will succeed in exposed, wind-swept positions, small borders, edgings, on rockwork or old walls, for they require very little soil, and revel in free air and sunshine. they have dune well with me on a sunny bank overhung with trees, where it was too dry for anything else to grow, for they enjoy a thorough drought in the summer and to be well drained for winter. what they cannot stand is sodden soil under shady trees or to be covered in any way by tall weeds or other plants. Otherwise when once planted they take care of themselves. With an annual clean-up of dead leaves and freedom from weeds, they soon form large patches with scores of flowers; in tact, during flowering time there is no plant I know of can vie with them for brilliant mass of colour, and for the rest of the time they are neat, tidy, liright green, cheerful- looking plants that give great variety by their foliage alone to the border or rockwork or whatsoever position they may be placed in.

They force readily, and as a newly-forced flower prove a great addition to the greenhouse, where their bright, conspicuously large flowers form an attractive display during January and February; care must be taken, however, after they have come into bloom to give air and otherwise keep cool to preserve the flowers. In a cool greenhouse. Where they are perfectly happy, they bloom in Felbruary and March, and are both a new and notable subject. Their flowers are fragrant, and the many intricate lines and markings can be well seen close at hand- Thus the beauty and pre-eminence of Iris over many other flowers is that the more they are examined and looked into close at hand, quite apart from their decorative effect in the garden, the more interest and beauty do we find in them, and here comes in their special fitness for table decoration. Some of the happiest effects which I have seen in table decoration have been gained by unconventional means in laying the blossom of the Iris snapped off' and without stalk or water upon the white cloth. For delightful effect gather a handful of white, cream, porcelain, one or two yellows of different tints, a couple of violets, and deep purple for contrast ; lay them on the cloth, as you have them in your hand, without disturbance, add a single flower or so scattered, so to speak, about the talile round them, or place one or two groups round the centre vase of the table. Laid in this way you have a splendid result. It must be remembered that green is no more the right colour for everything of your garden than for everything in your house, and this applies more especially to Iris, which is capable of so many colours, which look quite dingy in the green of the border, but when laid out on the white cloth are seen for the first time to be some of the most beautiful things you have.

Rahais, Guernsey. W. J. Caparne.

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

-- BobPries - 2014-07-24
Topic revision: r1 - 24 Jul 2014, BobPries
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