1911, An Iris Excursion, by Dykes

Gardeners' Chronicle p.381, June 17, 1911


ONE of the most serious drawbacks to the cultivation of many Irises is that there is no time in the year when there is not something to see or attend to in the garden. Narcissus, Tulip, and even Rose enthusiasts can take holidays, and yet not feel that they are missing something in their garden, or not doing their best in the matter of cultivating some other treasure. To the Iris grower no such period ever seems to come, and it was with many misgivings that I tore myself away in the last week in April for a week's Iris hunting in the South of France.

The morning after my departure found me at Tarascon, after sundry fleeting visions of various forms of Iris germanica in cottage gardens as the train rushed down by the Rhone. Tarascon itself proved, as a French friend warned me would be the case, " au dessous de tout." which we might render " beneath contempt," if we were not afraid of further offending the worthy townsfolk, whose self-conceit has suffered so sadly from Daudet's caricature. Once at Tarascon, one can hardly refrain from crossing the suspension bridge to Beaucaire, and this proved to be well worth while, for the hill on which stand the ruins of the Chateau of St. Louis is covered by thousands of red-purple and white Irises, which proved to be germaniea atropurpurea and a white form of germaniea. This was exceedingly interesting, for one of the points on which I hoped to find information was precisely the relationship and identity of the several white Irises, the nomenclature of these being sadly confusing.

It was an easy matter to compare the white and purple forms in such a spot, and the growth and the shape of the segments proved to be identical, except, perhaps, that the spathes of the side branches were more apt to be two-flowered in the white than in the purple variety. Another difference was that the hairs on the inside of the haft of the standards were much more numerous on the white than on the purple form. In the latter, indeed, they were sometimes almost entirely absent, though in some flowers they would be quite conspicuous on one standard and almost absent from the others. The affinity of the two forms seemed also to be confirmed by the frequent occurrence of purple tinges and even stripes in the pure white of the albino form.

From Tarascon I went to Aries, and found that the white Iris in the public gardens there was not this white germanica nor florentina, but albicans, of which more will be said later. From Aries it is but a short excursion to Mont Majour, which provided a good instance of the effect of environment on the growth of Irises. At the base of the hill, among the bushes, I found a yellow-flowered form of I. Chamseiris, with a stem rather more than a foot in height; while a hundred feet higher, on the open limestone rocks, the same Iris was dwarfed to little more than 3-4 inches in height.

The next morning found me setting out early, by a slow train, across the apex of the Camargue, on the way to Montpellier and C'ette. It was interesting to see that nearly every wayside station had long rows of Iris germaniea, often of more than one form, in endless slight variations of colour between blue- and red-purple. It seems as though this Iris is more willing to set seed there than it appears to be in England, and these varying forms may well be seedlings.

My errand at C'ette was to spend a few days with a French friend and fellow Iris enthusiast who lives in the neighbourhood and has a wonderful garden full of interesting plants: a veritable sun trap and rejoicing in a limestone soil. This means, of course, that the Pogoniris, as a whole, do better than the Apogons; indeed, there are few other gardens where Oncocyclus species and hybrids succeed so well, or where the same plants of Iris iberica have been grown for 15 years.

My friend is also fortunate in that the huge and rare I. Ricardii flourishes with him, and has given him, when crossed with pollen of various pogoniris, numbers of magnificent hybrids. These are characterised by stout stems, which, even in England, grow to about 4 feet in height. Ricardii itself is near to I. Cypriana, and came originally from Jerusalem, though we do not know that it is native there.

The hills in the neighbourhood of Cette are of rough, loose limestone, on some of which Iris Chamaeiris can be found; but, even apart from Irises, they are a veritable joy to botanists. Orchids abound amid the dwarf Cochineal Oak (Quercus coccifera), a creeping shrub, not more than 18 inches high, and looking more like a dwarf Holly than an Oak. The air is scented with wild Rosemary and Lavender, and Cistis monspeliensis and albidus. The name of the latter was given in reference to the glaucous leaves, and appears, at first sight, somewhat misleading applied to a plant with pink-purple flowers, growing side by side with the white-flowered monspeliensis. In some places the hillsides were white with thousands of large, white Asphodels, probably Asphodelus ramosus.

From Cette, a most interesting excursion was to Les Onglouses, which name is said to mean Irises in the local dialect (ongle being the botanical name for the claws of the segments of an Iris). The railway runs within a mile of the Mediterranean, and as the train drew up there were millions of white Irises to be seen on all sides, mingled with occasional patches of germaniea atropurpurea. The soil is a deep sand, so loose that straw and reeds from the marshes have to be ploughed in between the vines to prevent its being blown away. The water is not far below the surface, which is drained by cutting deep, narrow lanes between the vineyards. All the banks swarm with the white Irises, which even have to be hoed up as weeds among the vines. In local floras, the name is always given as I. florentina, but this is a mistake, for they are all albicans. Indeed, I nowhere saw the true florentina, except in a garden at Hyeres, whither it had been imported from Holland.

Iris albicans was first described as a species by Lange, from specimens which he obtained from the neighbourhood of Almeria; but as it is also found in quantities all through Southern France, Italy, Greece, and even far away into Asia, its precise origin has been in doubt. No real proof of the following theory is yet forthcoming; but no one who compares albicans with I. Madonna will doubt, I think, that we have here the blue and the white forms of the same thing. I. Madonna was first discovered, together with a white-flowered form, by Botta, in 1837, on Mount Saber, in the Yemen, in Arabia, and these specimens exist in the Paris Herbarium. It was not, however, described until 1892 (rf. Dull. Soc Tosc. Ortic. XVII. , 1892, 130), and has only recently been introduced into cultivation by an Italian firm, who also obtained the white form. This, however, seems to have been rare, and to have been lost or, possibly, if the theory is right, transplanted among other plants of albicans already growing in the garden. The attractiveness of the theory lies in the fact that, if Madonna and albicans are the blue and white forms of an Arabian Iris, it is only natural that this white Iris should be found, as is indeed the case, in Mahommedan cemeteries, from Spain in the west, into Persia and even further east. In no other way can we easily account for its very wide distribution, though there are some equally puzzling questions suggested by the fact that the large form of Iris germanica, which Foster received from Kharput, is also the commonest form in Srinagar, in Kashmir; while the Iris nepalensis of Wallich, the commonest Iris in Khatmandu, in Nepal, is simply the form that is commonly grown here as Iris germanica atropurpurea.

Before returning home, I went east as far as Hyeres, and found Iris spuria, only in bud, unfortunately, growing in the stiff clay in the marshes between the town and the sea, but failed to find the I. olbiensis of Henon on the Domaine du Ceinturon. It still existed there some three or four years ago, for I have some plants collected then. Unfortunately, they are all specimens of the dingy yellow form, and not of the clear yellow or deep purple varieties. However, in spite of their poor colour, they have often enough to show that I. olbiensis is only a form of I. Chamaairis.

Another interest was provided for me on the tramp back to Hyeres from the sea by the changing forms of Iris pseudacorus along a wayside stream. There was constant variation — within a few yards even — in the amount and distinctness of the brown veinings on the falls, in the shape of the standards, and even in the colour of the anthers.

A hurried visit to the Paris Herbarium, at the Jardin des Plantes, which is particularly rich in Chinese specimens, was the last incident of an Iris excursion, which proved to be exceedingly interesting. W. H. Dykes, Charterhouse, Godalming.

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

-- BobPries - 2014-11-12
Topic revision: r1 - 12 Nov 2014, BobPries
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