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Novelty Irises by Ben Hager, in The World of Irises 1978.

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A few copies of this classic Iris book 'The World of Iris' ©AIS are still available from the AIS Storefront



The word “Novelty,” which once meant a newly introduced iris, has recently been drafted to describe irises that are basically divergent in pattern, form or habit from the mainstream of Iris development.

Among the first publications to mention these iris types was the report Les Iris Cultivés from the first international iris conference in Paris, 1922 (Guillamin 1923), with a full page illustrating examples of “horned” and “flat” irises, among others. The article accompanying the photograph labeled them “monstrosities,” but the word did not then bear the condemnation that it does in our days, of things from outer space or ocean depths. In recent articles authors have used equivalent if not stronger adjectives, and an eminent irisarian spoke of “…Later eruptions with horns and other appendages in place of beards,” as being a “terrible deformity.” He declared it probable that they would fade out unless they could be combined with true beauty, which he considered would be a miracle. In the same article he disparaged lace, ruffling and overly wide petals, features which most breeders and fanciers are avidly promoting.

Even without such a miracle, there is a place in our lives for the curious and frivolous. Without diversion from the routine, life is dull. Consider these nonconformists of the iris world, for narrow is the path that leads to boredom. ----


There are many examples of leaf variegation among the beardless irises. Most are pleasing and decorative plants when well grown: I. laevigata , with a neatly patterned green and creamy white leaf, that does well in cool England, but seems to be weaker in more arid climates; the variegated form of I. kaempferi (Now Iris ensata ), reportedly slow and finicky, with narrow leaves having a well-contrasted pattern, and flowers typical of the species form; I. foetidissima , prone to virus kill and hence difficult to maintain; the variegated I. japonica , registered ‘Aphrodite’, a vigorous grower but shy on bloom in California, reportedly a weak grower in England; I. tectorum from Japan, slow of growth in Oregon and Washington; and the variegated form of I. pseudacorus which may sometimes grow smaller than normal and is variegated only in the spring, turning green later. It produces fully albino seedlings, and seedlings that are like the parent in seasonal pattern.

Examples of leaf variegation occur in both diploid and tetraploid forms of bearded irises. The best-known is the variegated I. pallida known as ‘'Zebra'’, elegant and useful as a garden plant but with flowers appreciated only by those with a weakness for species. A rare white and green form, ‘'Argentea'’, is also known.

Keith’'s 'Cream Cockatoo' is a variegated tetraploid. Whereas leaf variegation seems usually to be somatic, in this case it may be genetic since the characteristic was present in a single seedling from a cross with a variegated '‘El Dorado'’ garden seedling. Variegation has been unstable in all tetraploid seedlings observed, and constant selection of variegated fans is necessary to maintain plants with the pattern, which unfortunately is not as neat and even in tetraploid tall bearded as in that of other iris types.



In flowers, streaks and splashes of different color are the result of instability in the normal control of pigment production. Varieties that display this as a regular feature are highly prized in other flowers such as roses and camellias, and it can be effective in irises. In some cases it can be inherited.

Such unstable coloration seems to appear most often in plicatas. While color breaking persists in those cultivars that show it, it cannot easily be bred for, since seedlings of such a cultivar rarely show it. Keppel’s '‘Humoresque'’ seems to be able to pass it on to the next generation, and is also unusual in that all flowers on a stem will be much the same in color pattern, but the difference from stem to stem can be quite striking, ranging from white with a few violet splashes to violet with a few white splashes. It is most effective in the intermediate stage with white and violet splashes about equally distributed. ‘'Dominocus'’, one of a series of varieties with flower variegation (figure 1), introduced by Ensminger, is mostly white with varying violet splashes (Ensminger 1976).

The pattern of variable peppering and plicating lightly covering a white ground is common among seedlings of ‘'Tea Apron'’ and the later Sass blue and white plicatas. The popular ‘'Hey Looky’' from W. F. Brown is one of the better selections from these.

variable peppering

'Tea Apron' Tea Apron 'Hey Looky' Hey Looky

The old diploid iris, ‘Honorabile’, introduced by Lémon in 1840, has produced more sports than any other known iris. Among these, ‘'Kaleidoscope'’ retains the yellow standards, but its red falls have a broken pattern; in its sport, ‘'Joseph’s Coat'’ (then not registered), both standards and falls vary in color.

‘'Finder’s Keepers'’ is the only Louisiana iris with this unstable gene. Creamy white with irregular blue flecking along the edges and sometimes over the center of the petals, it is from two clones of I. brevicaulis . Among varieties of the Japanese iris the color breaking in the flowers is an attractive characteristic. It is called “marbling” in this class. Payne’s ‘'Wounded Dragon'’ is a memorable example. It also occurs less boldly in the center of the fall blades of the Siberians, where it is more like “dappling”. In both Japanese and Siberians this is a genetic pattern.

Beardless Irises with unstable genes

'Finders Keepers' Finders Keepers



Several beardless irises have double flowers, some quite interesting. The double I. pseudacorus has pale yellow flowers in the form known as hose-in-hose—perfectly formed flowers one inside the other. This one builds up in a pagoda fashion. ‘Creole Can-Can’ is a double Louisiana iris collected from the swamps by Marvin Granger. A seedling from it he named ‘Double Talk’. ‘Blue Rose', the charming double form of the small Evansia species I. gracilipes , is a difficult grower.

Beardless Irises with double flowers

'Gold Pagoda' Gold Pagoda 'Creole Can Can' 'Creole Can Can' 'DoubleTalk' DoubleTalk

Among the Japanese irises, single forms repeat the species shape with three small erect standards and three larger down-hanging falls; the six-petal “double” forms will be discussed in the flat class. True doubles in the Japanese irises are common horticultural forms. The currently grown ‘Miyuki’ and ‘Hagoromo’ have nine petals, and probably all are falls as they carry the signals; others have 12 petals. In yet another type, the style arms become petaloid, creating a pompon effect in the center of the flower. The Marx 'Blue Pompon'’ and ‘'Driven Snow'’ are typical. Rich’s ‘'Tuptim'’ is variable in this effect with about half the flowers showing the tufted center.

Japanese Irises with extra parts

'Driven Snow' Driven Snow 'Tuptim' Tuptim

Doubles among the bearded irises are rare and usually unattractive. '‘Double Blue Ridge'’ distributed by Sheets but not registered, is a light violet diploid curiosity with three falls but multiple standards. ‘'Double Edge'’ widely touted a couple of years ago, was a coarse yellow with objectionable form. The fortuitous occurrence of extra standards or falls is a common garden phenomenom brought about by oddities in the weather or other environmental accidents, and appearing more often with certain types of irises such as arilbreds and standard dwarf bearded. Meek'’s ‘ 'Full House'’ , an intriguing curiosity, regularly has five standards and five falls in apricot orange, with five huge, blazing mandarin orange beards (Figure 1}.
Tallbearded with extra parts

'Full House' Full House


All six petals of the flat irises are actually falls, with beards in the bearded irises and signals in the beardless iris group. Flat tall bearded irises are often described as having the Japanese look because the six-petaled Japanese irises are flat and all six of their petals have the prominent signal patches that identify them as falls. The flowers have no standards.

Flat bearded irises have been recognized since individual iris cultivars have been recorded—from Farr’s 'Japanesque' of 1922, and ‘'Little Freak’' (unregistered) representing the diploids, to Austin’s oncobred ‘Giant Clematis’ (figure 1) and more recent tetraploid introductions; Knopf’s ‘Gazoo’, Crossman’s ‘Exotica’, Noyd’s ‘GoGo Girl’, and Babson’s ‘Impersonator'. Instability is a problem, causing variations and distortions in the form of the flowers. When they have a good season even the purist will have to admit that they are, if not proper irises, at least spectacular flowers. Interbreeding these irises may stabilize them. They will reproduce their form if perfect stigmas and pollen can be found, which is rarely.


'Gazoo' Gazoo

Flat irises appear regularly in the beardless series including some Louisiana irises, such as DuBose’s ‘Amethyst Star’. It is not unusual for Louisiana irises to be unstable, showing the signal on all six petals, or on some, or none at all.

Among the variations of I. laevigata, the forms '‘Alba'’ (figure 1), '‘Albopurpurea'’, and ‘'Colchesterensis' have six falls, a trait prominent in this species’ inheritance. The forms ‘'Semperflorens' and ‘'Regal'’ have the normal upright standards, yet a pod of open-pollenated seed from 'Regal'’ produced all flat type seedlings.

The word “flat” has been used to describe the form of some Siberian and spuria irises, but this is a case of horizontal falls and akimbo standards and is not the six-falled formation of the so-called “flatties.



Irises with such outgrowths are by far the most controversial of the Novelties. They are identified by changes in growth of the beard area so that it extends beyond the normal position on the fall and forms short to longer pointed horns, often bearded, or long threadlike filaments tipped by small petaloids as in the spooned types, or multipetaled boat-shaped flounces without beards. In the best forms, this phenomenon can be curious, decorative and even esthetically exciting as are some of the graceful spooned types. Well formed horns can lend the flower an air of infectious jollity. Some of the flounced irises appear to be doubles when the falls remain curved upward combining standards, flounces and falls to create an impression of a multipetaled flower.

Lloyd Austin introduced and publicized this group of irises as “Space Age” irises (Austin 1961). During the same period Tom Craig, whose seedling patches contained many representatives of this curious development, introduced ‘'Bearded Lady'’ and Lohman released ‘'Gay Nineties'’. Not surprisingly, all of these creations were based on much of the same breeding lines, including the plicatas of Sidney Mitchell and in particular Mitchell’s .‘'Advance Guard'’. This line was in turn based largely on the Sass plicata line which occasionally displayed this peculiarity. Since Austin’s work, only recently has anything been done in updating the flower form of these irises, an essential if these intriguing floral fantasies are to remain in the Iris garden Improvement should not be difficult since outcrosses to irises of completely different backgrounds will produce horned seedlings; thus the best in the current tall bearded creations can be used in the improvement of this class. When horns, spoons and flounces appear of superior irises, the outcry against the type will diminish and breeders will have succeeded in the “miracle of combining beauty with this novelty. ----


The popular laced edging in irises is caused by a mutation that forms projections along the margins giving a crinkled effect. This should probably be included among the Novelties, but it has been so widely accepted that it has become a standard along with ruffling, with which it is often combined.

Giant size has had strong appeal to many iris enthusiasts. ‘ Spring Sunshine from Milliken in 1947 started the trend and more recent irises have continued it. Schreiner’s ‘ 'Giant Rose'’ attracted many fanciers; Babson’s ‘Djinn’ and his ‘ 'Epic'’, the parent of the Dyke Medal winning ‘'Shipshape'’, have satisfied megalomania.

Especially strong and unusual patterning can give relief from a too similar monotony in the garden: ‘ Madame Butterfly’ from Tompkins, with violet veining and brushing on the falls of an otherwise creamy flower; Babson’s ‘Tattoo’, with deep yellow ground and red brown areas on the upper half of the falls; and Schreiner’s ‘Hash Marks’, with prominent dark brown areas on the falls of a maze tan blossom, are prime examples.

The novelty irises with different forms and colors are well worth seeking out. Let’s not make up our minds about them until we have seen the better forms. It is possible that some of these features will one day become as standard as “lace.

Reproduction of this article is only by permission of AIS ©AIS Southwest Classic Southwest Classic

-- BobPries - 2014-04-25
Topic attachments
I Attachment Action Size Date Who Comment
Novelties_Fig._1sm.jpegjpeg Novelties_Fig._1sm.jpeg manage 280 K 27 Apr 2014 - 14:05 BobPries Figure 1 from The World of Iris
Novelties_Fig._2_sm.jpegjpeg Novelties_Fig._2_sm.jpeg manage 110 K 27 Apr 2014 - 14:07 BobPries Figure 2 from The World of Iris
Topic revision: r24 - 02 Jan 2017, waynemesser
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