Article: Themed Iris Gardens

~ Mike Unser, WA

Most folks begin their iris collections with whatever irises they are given or come their way, happily trying any and all. Over time, as the ‘iris virus’ takes hold, many folks become more discriminating. They start weeding out varieties they don’t like and seeking out new varieties to add. Often certain tastes develop – a particular hybridizer, pattern, class, or era becomes a favorite – and a theme garden is born.


iris garden of Dave Hall

The garden of Dave Hall, from Cooley’s Gardens catalog


  • Names – The most obvious place to start is with themes built around varietal names. Collect varieties with the same name as family members, or how about a garden full of irises all named for various ladies? Political figures? Celebrities? Literary characters? The possibilities are endless. Collections could be built around birds, food, music, or colors in the name.
  • Hybridizers – Many people settle on one or more hybridizers whose varieties they really enjoy and attempt to collect either a comprehensive or representative collection of their work. It is these types of collections that are most important in preserving rarer varieties that may not otherwise remain in circulation.
  • Eras – Collecting all available irises from various eras can be fun. A courtyard garden filled with pre-1900 diploids would be charming in spring. Perhaps a long border of those famous 40’s and 50’s pinks? Pick a timeframe of note and start a list of must haves.
  • Novelty irises – Many of todays most dominate classes of iris once started as occaisional novelties that would show up in breeding programs. Broken color, space age, and flatties all were once uncommon traits and were often viewed as negative mutations, but later became desirable new classes. Here’s a few suggestions for small collections that can be fun conversation pieces in the garden:

    ‘Flatties’ – bearded iris with the flat form of Janaese irises – have been introduced sporadically over the years

    Sports – why not get all of ‘Honorabiles’ sports in a bed? There must be other well known sports and their parents still about. it would be nice to have them together and documented.

    Broken color – Broken color irises used to be a rarity and not a trait that was deliberately bred for, but many came on the market over the years anyway. A comprehensive collection of them would be a whimsical riot of color.

    Space agers – Years before space age irises became a new form class various beard apendages appeared here and there. The varieties that strated it all might make an interesting collection, and are definitely worth preserving.

  • Medians – Most historic collections focus on tall bearded irises, but many medians were also being introduced across the years as well. This is an area that could really benefit from the attentions of a diligent detective.
  • Beardless historics – For areas that have trouble with bearded irises why not collect beardless historics? One species or several, here’s a chance to have a really unique collection.
  • Almost historics – Irises from more recent decades tend to be overlooked when thoughts of preservation come up. Right now varieties from the 70’s and 80’s are falling out of circulation as they sit in that bubble between new modern forms and colors and really classic historics. Young collectors could do the future a favor and find the worthy varieties of almost historics now before they are just pictures in old catalogs.
  • Geography – How about a collection of irises hybridized in your state? Or varieties named for places in your state? Local flavor can be a nice touch with a display garden.Theme gardens can enhance one’s enjoyment of a collection as well as assist in preserving varieties that may otherwise be overlooked and fade away.