(1915) Mr. Farrer's Chinese Irises by Dykes

Gardeners' Chronicle p.175, April 3, 1915


By the kindness of Professor Bayley Balfour, I have recently had an opportunity of examining the dried specimens of the Irises which Mr. Fairer collected last year in Western China, and described so enthusiastically in his letters already published in these columns. I remember wondering, as I read the letters, what the Irises could be that Mr. Fairer was describing. It was difficult to identify them
with any confidence, and yet it seemed unlikely that any large proportion of them could be new and unknown species, in -view of the fact that Western China has been fairly extensively explored by botanical collectors in recent years. The later collections sent home by Messrs. Forrest and Purdom have not contained any novelties among the Iris family, and it almost seemed as though even Western China no longer contained any botanical surprises.

As was only to be expected, Mr. Farrer encountered in South Kansu the ubiquitous Iris ensata (see Gard. Chron., October 26, 1914, p. 213), which he described as giving, in some places, a blue tinge to the country side. His specimen, No. F. 29, shows that this Iris there produces its flowers while the leaves are only 4 to 6 inches in length and therefore barely as tall as the flowers themselves. In England it is rare that the climatic conditions allow I. ensata to flower in this way, though the plants do occasionally attempt to send up their flowers with the leaves. The attempt is usually disastrous, owing to late frosts, and the plants then learn wisdom and keep back their main display until the leaves have grown to a foot or more in length, and provided more shelter for the delicate flowers. In, countries where the change from winter to spring is sharper and more decided than it is in these islands, it is obvious that I. ensata is able to send up its flowers simultaneously " with the leaves instead of hiding them among the almost full-grown foliage.

Iris Farreri, sp. nov. the only other Iris to which Mr. Farrer gave a well-known name was I. graminea (see Gard. Chron., September 12, 1914, p. 185). " More generous is I. graminea, which abounds in the sere fine herbage of high, hot downs, and now enriches their brown expanse with here and there a dainty, spidery cup of amethystine blue, suggesting a Crocus torn in strips, or I. reticulata, diminished and made anaemic." This was a puzzle, for I. graminea was not known to grow east of the Caucasus, and yet it seemed hardly possible that any other Iris could have been mistaken for this well-known species, with its Plum-scented flowers and curiously flattened stem, which at once distinguishes it from all others. Partly by the process of elimination and partly from the superficial resemblance of the plant and flowers to I. graminea, I feel that we may, with some confidence, identify No. F. 325 with the plant described above. The label on the sheet says : " Abundant by the upland tracks and in open places in the hill valleys of the Min S'an, not below 9,000 feet, nor above 10,000. July 20 (lingering)." This Iris, however, is not I. graminea, but an unknown species to which the name of Iris Farreri* may perhaps not inappropriately be given. This species obviously belongs to the Spuria group, with the members of which it agrees in possessing the ovary with double ridges at each angle, the sharply two-pointed stigma, the orange-red pollen, and the oval blade of the falls separated by a constriction, from the long oval haft.

At first sight, I. Farreri bears a far more striking resemblance to the Balkan I. Sintenisii than to I. graminea, from which it is separated at once by the stem, which is apparently not flattened, and by the long tapering neck to the ovary, a feature which is conspicuously absent in I. graminea. The foliage, too, as far as can be seen from the dried specimens, lacks the polished upper surface, which is so marked in I. graminea. From I. Sintenisii and I. Urumovii it is less easy to separate this new Iris. It differs chiefly, however, in the thin texture of the spathes, of which only the outer valve appears to be keeled, and that but slightly, and in the narrow, slender, somewhat flimsy foliage. In I. Sintenisii the leaves are noticeably tough and leathery, and in I. Urumovii they are very stiff, rigid, and glaucous. The character of the rhizome is not wholly apparent from the available specimens, but the fibrous remains of old leaves that sheathe the base of the growths suggest an affinity in habit to I. songarica, another Eastern and outlying member of the Spuria group. I. Farreri is distinguished from I. Kerneriana by its narrow leaves, by the rounded and not pointed blade to the falls, and probably by the character of the rhizome.

The stem of I. Farreri is about eight inches long, and bears a single head of two flowers.
It is closely clothed in about three reduced leaves. The spathes are nearly 4 inches long, narrow, tapering to a fine point, not at all scarious at flowering time, and with a transparent margin in the upper part. Only the outer valve seems to be slightly keeled. The pedicels are 1 ½ to 2 inches long, and the six-ribbed ovary has a tapering neck about half an inch long.

The flowers apparently bear a striking resemblance to those of I. Sintenisii, as far at least as can be seen from the dried specimens. The panduriform fall is about 1 ¾ in. long, the small blade being separated from the haft by the constriction characteristic of the Spuria group. The blade is closely veined, and probably minutely dotted, with blue-purple on a grey white ground. The sides of the haft are veined, and the central portion dotted in the same way. The narrow, oblanceolate standards are about as long as, or slightly shorter than, the falls, and of a slightly redder shade of purple. The styles also are of a redder purple, and the stigma consists of two sharply pointed teeth, as in all members of the Spuria group, with which I. Farreri also agrees in having bright, orange-red pollen. The crests of the style are broadly triangular, and not long, narrow, and tapering, as in I. songarica. The foliage is narrow, being barely 1 in. in width, but it overtops the stem, some leaves being as much as 18 or 24 inches long. In their finely ribbed texture, the leaves resemble those of I. humilis or I. Urumovii.

Iris Henryi. We can now pass on to those Irises to which Mr. Farrer either gave new, provisional names, or which he left unnamed. The first is that described on p. 258, October 17, 1914, as a "little grassy-leaved, white Iris, apparently of Pavonia relationship, the six segments being so rounded, and occasionally so equal, as to make almost the effect of a small and starry Narcissus." The relationship" to Pavonia is somewhat misleading, because the so-called I. Pavonia is not an Iris at all, but a bulbous plant, whose proper name appears to be Moraea Pavonia. Mr. Farrer was thinking only of the markings on the falls and not of the habit of the plant. Of this Iris the dried specimen is numbered F. 19, " pavonina," and accompanied by the following note: — "Abundant in the hot and very coarse turf at 6,000 feet on the torrid hills opposite Kiai Chow, April 29. Alas ! we could not manage to secure either plants or seeds." This small Iris has a slender, wide-running rhizome very similar to the underground stems of the Couch Grass. Each tuft of six or eight slender leaves produces a single stem, 4-6 in. in height, with a single, two-flowered spathe. The valves are entirely green when the flower is expanded, and though they are an inch or more in length, yet the pedicel is even longer, so that the ovary is exposed above the spathes. The tube is verv short.

This is I. Henryi, Baker, of which hitherto there have only been available such dry herbarium specimens that it has been impossible to say even whether the flowers were yellow or lilac. Mr. Farrer's specimens, however, are so fresh that there is little doubt that the flowers are either creamy white or pale yellow. Mr. Farrer tells us in his somewhat picturesque language that the falls have a " delicate peacock eye of gold, outlined with a rim of blue that sometimes faintly suffuses all the flower." Of these details there is, unfortunately, no trace left in the dried specimens. The similarity of the segments in shape to those of I. minuta is very striking, but there can be no excuse for confusing the two species, for in I. Henryi the pedicel is long and the tube very short, while in I. minuta the tube is longer than the pedicel.

Other details which these specimens add to our previous knowledge of I. Henryi are: Styles, narrow, oblong, with a raised central keel, pale creamy white; stigma, triangular; filaments, apparently equal in length to the anthers; filaments, anthers, and pollen all creamy white.

Iris ruthenica. In Gard. Chron., September 12, 1914, p. 185, Mr. Farrer described an Iris in the following terms : — " All the roadsides are carpeted with hassocky tufts of a little Iris, that never seems to flower over half the country, though very occasionally one comes upon isolated stretches of it where the low, wide cushions of broadish foliage are thickly set with seed capsules." This Iris may perhaps be identified as I. ruthenica, which does produce low cushions of leaves, and some forms of which do appear to flower very shyly, while others, and especially the broad-leaved forme, flower abundantly. No. F. 55 is a specimen of I. ruthenica, and Mr. Farrer's note is as follows:—" Seen only once, May 3, at one point in the Dung Lu Ho Valley at about 6,000 feet, straying about in fine grass and amid very scanty scrub, on a small level space by the wayside above the river."

I. ruthenica is a very widely distributed Iris, for it is found as far west as Transylvania, and as far east as Manchuria, and it is also common in the Altai Mountains, and in Western China. The free flowering forms are very desirable, and probably would soon be better known than they are if the fact were once grasped that it is almost certainly fatal to attempt to move this Iris in the autumn, although it may be moved with every chance of success soon after the flowers have faded. It is equally easily raised from seed.

Iris goniocarpa. There remain to be considered the two Irises to which Mr. Farrer introduced us at p. 318, November 14, 1914. "One which occurs also at lower elevations is sturdier and stockier in growth than the other, with larger flowers, and the falls brindled and mottled tabby-like, so that I think of her for the present as I. felina; more entrancing yet are the fairy-like elegance and the profuse wiry stems of the other, whose waxen, snowy falls are hemmed and dotted with deep velvet spots of pure violet, till one can call it nothing else but I. pardalina." Mr Farrer has sent home dried specimens of both these Irises, F. 90, I. " pardalina," and F. 124, I. "felina," and, after a careful examination of them, it seems impossible to look upon them as anything more than two local forms of Baker's I. goniocarpa, of which Maximowicz's name of L gracilis is a synonym. This species is known from Sikkim and the Chumbi Valley ; it is also found in Tibet and in the Chinese provinces of Szechuan. Kansu, and Shensi. The forms from these different localities vary in size and sturdiness, just as do Mr. Farrer's two forms ; but mere size is hardly a sufficient reason for bestowing specific rank. Both sets of specimens show the features which are characteristic of the section of Pseudoregelia Irises, to which I. goniocarpa belongs. These are the curiously mottled flowers found also in I. kumaonensis and in I. Hookeriana, which are so abundant in the Alpine valleys of Kashmir and Kumaon; the oblong, blunt-ended standards and the curious, membranous sheaths that clasp the bases of the tufts of leaves. Mr. Farrer's description of his I. "pardalina" as having "waxen, snowy falls" shows how difficult it is to convey a right impression of colour by mere words. The dried flowers of both this Iris and of " felina " are practically of the same pale purple colour, with the conspicuous darker mottlings and blotches.

If we take a more familiar instance, we shall see at once how the same flower may be described in two totally different manners by looking at it from different points of view. I. Histrio and I. histrioides are usually described as blue Irises with some white markings, but it is equally true to describe them as having white falls almost wholly covered with blue blotches and veins. The possibility of describing the flowers in these two ways accounts for the description of I. "felina" as being "brindled and mottled tabby-like," while it is also shown in Gardeners' Chronicle, November 14, 1914, fig 128, as having " flowers white, with deep violet-coloured spots," the latter being precisely Mr. Farrer's description of I. "pardalina." It is interesting to notice that the difference in habit between these two forms of I. goniocarpa is precisely that which we should a priori expect from the different positions in which they grow. I. " felina," which comes from the open among limestone rocks, is usually found in the higher positions ; it has fewer leaves, which are overtopped by the stems at flowering time, as is also the case with both I. kumaonensis and I. Hookeriana. It has also larger flowers than I. "pardalina," which grows lower down in "very much coarser, longer turf." Here the flower-stems develop more slowly, instead of rushing up immediately the &now melts, and the leaves are consequently as long as, or a little longer than, the stems, and the flowers are smaller. W. R. Dykes, Charterhouse, Godalming.

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

-- BobPries - 2014-07-09
Topic revision: r1 - 09 Jul 2014, BobPries
This site is powered by FoswikiCopyright © by the contributing authors. All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
Ideas, requests, problems regarding Iris Wiki? Send feedback