The Garden Plus Irises by Robert Swan Sturtevant
1920 Article in The American Gardeners' Chronicles, March p97. 1920
The Garden Plus Irises by Robert Swan Sturtevant
A HARDY garden where irises have not a place is unusual, but rarely does the gardener seem to take full advantage of their infinite colors, their vary- heights and forms, their easy adaptation to environment. There is a certain impersonal appeal to a broad- spreading sheet of iris color, but a far greater warmth of fascination when one suddenly perceives an iris in a new setting, its character revealed by the close vicinity of water, rock, or contrasting foliage mass.
At first my garden was just garden with irises here and there, slowly I developed an increasing appreciation of color relations, then my interest became centered on irises and now they are everywhere and the garden has just grown with many an outlying bed or border. Sometimes there are serried ranks of irises carpeted with chance seedlings of Forget-me-nots and Johnny-jump-ups, their pert little faces lifted toward the towering iris flowers: elsewhere we find iris in miniature, wee
things that hold themselves in vain disdain above the creeping thyme ; or, still elsewhere, in the lush growth by the pond they rise shoulder high as wildlings. Only in well-shaded areas am I forced to forego an iris in some form.
There is the garden proper, the seed beds, the rock-garden, odds and ends of narrow borders, and a less tame 'planting by the pond. Perhaps a brief review of each of these may suggest to you some of the possible ways of using iris
The rock-garden is on a steep southern slope under great larches, a narrow strip, the sub-soil pure gravel and the beds prepared merely with a generous admixture of leaf-mold. Here in early April I. reticulata shows its deep red-purpled, narrow segments, the awl-like leaves just showing above the soil; later there are some of the true pumilas, equally small but making rich drifts of color ; then verna, a native, its blue tone intensified by the vivid orange splotch at the throat : cristata, and its slightly larger form lacustris, form great mats of semi-shade, and the fascinating Japanese I. gracilipes is established at the foot of an old apple tree. The solid deep green, luxuriant foliage of I. graminea reminds me of verna's evergreen leaves, and its curiously attractive deep rose style-branches have a mellow fragrance that recalls "the rich and fruity odor of a freesia." Occasional plants of rare reglo-cyclus [regeliocyclus] forms have a foot hold and I look forward to the blooming of some of the California natives that have come from the seed bed. None of these with their dainty growth can compete with their more sturdy and showy brethren but few of them fail to intrigue the passer-by.
In the garden we come to the great variety of Bearded Irises. Pumila hybrids, vieing in early May with the solid mats of the low phlox, make gorgeous edgings ; then there are clumps of intermediate varieties in gorgeous combination with tulips of every hue. and with the late blooming varieties the garden becomes a veritable palette spread with contrasting tones of color. With my interest in irises, few varieties are used in large masses, many in small clumps, and more and more I come to realize that the taller and finer the form and the larger in size the iris, the greater is its beauty standing" clear from its neighbors. A few of the lovely self-colored things like pallida Dalmatica, Aurea, Dawn, or White Knight, I like in big blocks, but the deep claret tones of Caprice, or the red and yellow variegatas I want only as mere contrasting touches. What could be lovelier than two or three swinging" stalks of Caterina rising well above the average level, a compact clump of the rich, velvety Monsignor, or a single well-flowered stalk of Isoline, incomparable in color ! New combinations are continually cropping up and this last season one plan at least came to perfect maturity.
Against a brown, hewn trellis where the grapes show pale gray green and blush in their spring dress, there are perhaps twelve tall stalks of the velvety bronzed Prosper Laugier, below, a rounded clump of pure White Knight and a crescent-shaped drift of Prestige, its flowers airily held, its color clear yellow with echoes of white and violet. Rarely have I planned with such success, and who that loves gardening does not plan ?
If space allowed I should have many borders in selected colors, not all iris borders, but perennial borders with irises for May and June display : there would be claret, soft yellow, and cream, or purples from richest violet to palest lavender, rose toned and flushed pearly tints, or, perhaps, even bold chestnut and yellows softened by warm blends ; infinite are the possibilities.
Down by the marshy edge of the pond, the beardless irises thrive ; sibericas in cool white with the most fragile of venations in cream and lavender or in deepening tones of blue-lavender, their myriad flowers like butterflies poised in midair so slender are the stalks : lower growing with less grassy leaves, larger flowers and clearer color are the forms of orientalis of which White Queen and the almost velvety Emperor stand out preeminent. These are more usual garden favorites, but you will find a quite wide range of color among the natives of China, Thibet, or even our own country, for Wilsoni is a straw yellow, pseudacoris (the big English wildling) a bright yellow, and chrysographcs the deepest of violet. All these come into bloom with the great pageant of the Bearded Irises and though I speak of them as lovers of moisture, they do as well in a rich, well-cultivated garden. In late June, or early July, come the giant growing spurias. ochroleucas, and Monnieris, strong growing things with stifle wide spreading petals, but narrow ones which in Guldcnstadtiana become mere spidery limbs, and now also come the Japanese which are so well appreciated a part of many a garden.
Before the hardships of Quarantine i7 . I had many English, Spanish, and Dutch iris for mid-June show, but now I treasure but a few for they did not take to my light, poorly-nourished soil. They prove the best of all irises for cut-flowers and I only hope that the Horticultural Board will prove a true prophet in foreseeing a time when "Dutch" bulbs can be as well grown in this country as in Holland and gardens may show again the beauty of bulbs by the hundred. Personally my passing acquaintance with the bulbous irises has not been sufficient to give me a knowing appreciation of the varieties by name, but I hope that others will be able to give them individuality.
All this is from mine own garden lore, but I think an actual example is the strongest argument I can put forward for you to become an active member of The American Iris Society. This was organized but a short time ago, January 29th, to be exact, and already over 260 charter members are enrolled and its policy is to bring to all garden lovers an added appreciation of the iris.
For more information on historic Irises visit the Historic Iris Preservation Society at