Reprint: Confusion Confounded

~ Geddes Douglas, TN 1953

What do I mean by season of bloom? I ask that question in all sincerity, not for the reason that I think others might be confused, but rather that I myself am not sure I understand what I mean when I use even the three simplest terms – early, midseason, and late.

There was a time not too long ago when there was no problem. Things were relatively simple for the reason that I know nothing to confuse me. I simply grew tall bearded iris and nothing else. Santa Barbara, The Bishop and At Dawning were early irises; Joycette, Jean Cayeux and Dauntless were midseason; and Blue Grotto, Saracen and Ebony Princess were late irises. The iris season extended oven an interval of some five weeks with a period of about three weeks of concentrated mass bloom.

Varieties in the limelight at that moment (1935-1936) included Creole Belle, Junaluska, Snow King, The Red Douglas and Missouri while Shah Jehan and Orloff were being hailed as great steps forward in their respective classes. Vaguely I was aware of a large class of irises which bloomed somewhat earlier than the novelties of the day, but they were flowers of the people who just had gardens and were not the favorites of the enthusiasts whose attention I so ardently courted at the moment.

In 1939 the Alphabetical Iris Check List was published and this great compendium of iris facts and figures became my bible. I studied it at every available moment. I made parentage charts, family trees, lists of obsolete names, lists of supposedly good parents and then one day I made a discovery. It was a rather important discovery and it opened my eyes to the fact that I had never considered, that there was an iris season of which the tall bearded was only a part. This Season Classification in on page 9 of the Check List and after being slightly rearranged for simplicity is as follows:


EE Extra early (early Dwarf Bearded)
E Early (Dwarf Bearded)
EM Early Midseason
M Midseason
MLa Late Midseason (late Tall Bearded)
La Late
VLa Very Late (Japanese main crop)
VVLa After Japanese and before autumn bloomers
Win. Winter bloomers
Re Remontants or Fall Bloomers

VVLa, which is defined as after the Japanese and before the fall bloomers contains few if any examples. The remontants* are merely spring flowers that bloom again due to good gardening practices that stimulate accelerated growth. The only winter flower with which I am familiar is stylosa, although there are several tender irises and irids which may be forced in the greenhouse. (*genetics have a hand in this, though certainly favorable weather and garden conditions allow us to see more re-bloom. Eleanor Roosevelt is a remontant).

In addition to the above the following symbols were given for irises that had extra long seasons of bloom, where there would be obvious overlapping of season if not so indicated:


E – M Early to Midseason
E – La Early to Late
M – La Midseason to Late
M – VLa Midseason to Very Late

These last four symbols may be ignored, I think, for they do not enter into the basic plan which exhibits a very orderly division of the blooming season. It is interesting to note that “M” meaning midseason is flanked on the early side by three divisions. EE, E, and EM cover those irises that bloom before midseason and (five divisions), ML La, VLa, VVLa and Win. Refer to the after midseason sorts.

Basic Rules Evolved in Twenties

Our first Check List was printed in 1929 and the basic rules of procedure were devised between that date and the date of the founding of the Society in 1920. Even though during this period the big tetraploid iris was just beginning to be disseminated in quantity, the iris of the average garden was still the diploid and it is reasonable to suppose that this is the iris that determined the actual relative position of the so-called Midseason variety.

What were some of these? I remember quite a few – Queen of May, Quaker Lady, Ma Mie, Mlle. Schwartz, Mme. Chereau, Aphrodite, Gay Hussar, Cinnabar and Rose Unique were a few. Such irises as these set the season. Later on as varieties changed in the popularity a new list of irises became the criterion for the term midseason. I noticed this very forcibly. In 1935 when I moved to Brentwood, Mr. Thos. A. Williams had a large planting of the old diploids and there was a two-week difference between the blooming season of these irises and that of the newer tall beardeds. Thus ‘M’ meaning midseason underwent a natural change – as the bigger, later tetraploids became popular ‘M’ moved toward the late end of the iris season.

There was another change that was evident in the period around 1940. This was a change in the way the iris public chose to interpret and to regard the various symbols. Addicts of the various bearded types appropriated the various symbols and used them all to describe the type in which they were particularly interested.

Thus EE, E, EM, M, MLa, La and VLa were used to describe tall bearded iris without regard to the intermediates and dwarfs. More recently the people growing and breeding dwarfs have taken over this idea and are using most of the symbols to describe the dwarf season which originally embraced only the EE, and E and very possibly the EM divisions. Currently, intermediate enthusiasts are doing exactly the same thing. Individual varieties are described as being early, midseason and late in their blooming, not with reference to the iris season as a whole but merely to the normal season of bloom of the intermediate.

While these practices may be convenient for certain specialized groups it does not seem to be consistent with the ideas laid down by our predecessors and largely used in the compilation of our Check Lists.

New Types Confuse Use

This modern outlook may lead to still other complications. Due to the use of certain recently discovered forms of I. pumila, new combinations of height and blooming season have been achieved that were previously thought impossible. For instance, we now have hybrid dwarfs of intermediate statue (over 15 inches) which bloom in the dwarf or EE season. Other such 15-inch hybrids may bloom with the latest of the tall bearded. As to the dwarfs, already we have these miniature models blooming at the same time as the early tall bearded and it is only a matter of time until breeding and selection will produce dwarf plants that will bloom with our very latest talls such as Adios, Extravaganza, and Truly Yours.

The new types will not stop here. At the moment TB 1x pumila seems to produce only short statued iris in the F1 generation. It is expected however that in the F2 or succeeding generations, the genes for earliness and tallness will unite in one plant and in such an event we may expect hybrids exceeding 24 inches in height that will bloom with the early intermediates or the late dwarfs. To merely say that such a new iris is early is not enough. We must devise some way of imparting to each other that a certain hybrid from Light’s On x Reichenbachii is a late dwarf. The important thing is to be able to pinpoint this iris as blooming along with Helen McGregor and Pink Formal.

It might help us if we charted the entire bearded blooming season by the weekly periods. This is difficult due to the fact that in the more southernly areas the season is long, while in the Northern states the season is relatively short. However, it is possible just for the sake of argument to pick an average locality and then interpolate the dates to the other areas.

Here in Nashville, if such a thing as a normal season could be imagined, it might begin with the last week of March when the early pumilas bloom. The bearded iris season progresses through April with the intermediates and around the twentieth of April the first of the talls begin. The talls last here for about five to six weeks with Extravaganza usually closing the season coincident with the beginning of the Japanese season around the first of June.

Roughly, this makes about nine-week bearded season, probably longer than the season in New England, or in Region 2, shorter than the season in Southern California and in Louisiana. A visual (adapted) picture of the season would look something like this:

bloom season chart

The above chart divides the bearded blooming season into nine weeks and locates the three types of bearded. If we can accept the principle that the compilers of the Check List wished to apply the table of symbols in an orderly manner to the bearded season as a whole then the seven major season-of-bloom symbols can be placed upon the above chart.

This concept certainly does not jibe with current practices. We are accustomed to thinking the ‘M’ or midseason means the peak bloom of the tall bearded while the preceding table organized upon a standard unit of time basis, puts midseason much earlier. Just how early it would be can be visualized by interpolating certain known quantities with a definite season of bloom, i.e.;


I. Reticulata
I. pumila
EE March
Pumila x Chamaeiris
E April 1st
Eleanor Roosevelt
Onco-regalia hybrids
I. Germanica
Snow Flurry
Helen McGregor
Chivalry, etc.
ML May 1s
Truly Yours
Spuria VLa June 1st
Japanese VVLLa

This chart graphically illustrates the point that while we use ‘M’ meaning midseason for our peak bloom irises, this is far different from what the position in the 1939 Check List symbols indicate. According to the ‘M’ would be the season of bloom between the old common blue (Germanica) and the early diploids such as Thais. Current practices place ‘M’ irises as the main crop talls, some two to three weeks later than the Germanica-Thais interval.

Purely for personal opinion I think that considering the bearded iris season as a whole has its advantages. Such a concept precludes the necessity of having a season of bloom for each separate type, with the several attendant symbols. It enables one to place any particular iris in it proper relative place. Let’s look at it from this angle. First, let’s forget just for a moment that we have a dwarf season or an intermediate season or a tall bearded season. Let’s settle for one season – the iris season. Mrs. Peckham and Mr. Gersdorff had this thought in mind when they wrote our season of bloom symbols. It is not necessary, I think, to change anything except possibly our way of interpreting these symbols.

As it stands now we have a nine weeks iris season, more or less, and we have seven perfectly good seasons of bloom terms. If we can get used to the idea of ‘M’ meaning midseason as the middle of the iris season instead of being the middle of the tall bearded season, then our troubles are over. The other symbols may then be arranged before and after midseason in their proper order. The next logical step, I think, is to use our check list season-of-bloom classes which at the moment seem to be relegated to a position where they are neither used nor understood. VVLa is described to mean “After Japanese and before Winter Bloomers.” Why not move this up to begin in the last week of the regular season, a time for which we have no symbol and then let it extend to cover all possible summer bloomers?

Winter Really Begins Iris Year

The one remaining symbol in Win. which is for Winter Bloomers. Let’s consider this a moment. When is winter? As I write this on Thanksgiving day, I have just looked at the weather report on television. The low in Nashville was 41 degrees. The low in Caribou, Maine was 44 degrees. Winter hasn’t come yet; it is still fall. Which means that there will be much more winter in the first few months of the new year than there can be in the end of the old.

It isn’t much of a step from here to see that Winter is the beginning of our iris season, not the end. Nature will confirm this. Except for certain types of plants such as the camellia where other factors are involved, it is not normal for flowers to bloom in the winter. Winter means cold, and the first flowers bloom with the first warmth, and then it is Spring! For this reason it seems natural to begin our iris year with Winter, and here affords one spot where our nomenclature might be changed to advantage.

We use the word Very in qualifying the term Late. VLa is very late. VVLa is very, very late. With E, however, we use EE meaning extra early. Purely to be consistent, why not VE for Very Early and in place of Win. VVE for Very, very Early. This would make our season of bloom chart look something like this:


VVE – Very, very Early. Winter bloomers, Stylosa to dandordiae
VE – Very Early. Earliest dwarf bearded, pumila, etc.
E – Early. Chamaeiris
EM – Early Midseason. Conventional intermediate, germanica
M – Midseason. Germanica peak, Thais, earliest talls
MLa – Late Midseason. Main crop of tall bearded.
La – Late. Late tall beardeds, Amandine, Blue Rhythm.
VLa – Very Late. Extravaganza, Truly Yours.
VVLa #8211; Very, very Late. Japanese and summer bloomers.

There is one more point. Purely for those of us who have difficulty in remembering things why not consider these nine grand divisions of the iris seasons as equal entities and then number them from 1 to 9. These figures could stand for the various seasons identified above according to the known quantities and would be the simpliest type of symbol which any one could remember. With ‘M’ in the middle or “5” as it is in the numerical designation it is easy to remember that 1 to 4 refer in general to the small, early irises and that the numbers 6 to 9 refer to the larger, later irises. The exceptions will be those new irises that are coming with great rapidity.

Paul Cook has a series of intermediate amoenas that come at the peak of the tall bearded. Their designation would be IB6. My little 12-inch seedling from Light’s On x Reichenbachii referred to above and which blooms with Snow Flurry would be DB5. The old Sass intermediates would be IB4. Truly Yours would be TB8 and Green Spot would be DB4. And so on ad infinitum.

There are other ways of dividing the season and accomplishing the same result. The actual method seems to me to be relatively unimportant. The important thing is, I think, to revert to the ideas of those who originally designed our Check List system and consider the iris season as a whole. Next, in importance, is to abandon the practice of considering that each type of iris has a particular bloom season and the practice of using all our symbols for each type.

The question will be asked and with good reason, “Why is it necessary to make any change at all – why not simply apply the terms we now have?” My answer to this is that the difficulty lies in applying the rules. Our Registrar has the table before her, and given the proper information can apply the rules. But the actual placing of an iris in its season of bloom at the time of registration is done by the person who fills in the application form. It is usually easier to learn something new than to correct a preconceived misconception. The logical answer seems to me to lie in the adoption of a reasonable, workable plan, and the education of our would-be registrants in its application.

This article is reprinted from AIS Bulletin, January 1954, Number 132.