Reprint: Leave it to the Iris

by Louise Blake, Three Oaks, Spartanburg, SC


Miss Grace Sturtevant was amused when I told her that for fifteen years I had marveled at the ease and sureness with which she named her iris, she answered with her radiant smile, “It is much easier to originate an iris than to name it.” As I start this paper, at the order of our secretary, on garden pictures of tall bearded iris, I realize how much easier it is to plan and to plant than to describe the garden effect.

irises in the garden

[Image from Cooley’s Gardens catalog for 1962]

In the first place, I must confess that I leave it to the iris. In planning colors I neither study a book nor work with a color chart. I look at an iris and the iris tells me what to do. There are many people who have never really looked at an iris in their lives. It’s an exciting thing to do. I look at an iris that is called pink and I find pink and blue and yellow and warm white. What is the use of going to a book or a color chart when the iris has told me the colors to use in my garden picture?
One other confession: I have not reached the height of iris culture where I shun amoenas, disdain plicatas, tolerate blends, dislike bicolors and scorn variegatas. I have liked amoenas ever since, many years ago, I bought Mildred Presby from Bertrand H. Farr. And I have noticed in my garden that visitors rarely pass Dorothy Dietz without a smile of appreciation and they always pause with a gasp of delight before Marquita and Shah Jehan. Los Angeles was my first modern plicata and age does not wither the luminous quality of this iris. Every spring I recapture the thrill of pleasure the first blooming gave me. At the annual meeting when we were being graciously entertained by Mrs. J. Edgar Hires, I ran out in the rain and darkness three times to look at the lovely, as well as wonderful Siegfried. During supper, a suave voice whispered, “No use getting excited over a plicata.” Well, I’m still excited over Siegfried! As for blends, with their coloring of charm and mystery, I can not even understand a lack of enthusiasm so I leave it to Serenite and Mary Geddes to plead the case. How can any gardener fail to apprciate the value and beauty of bicolors? I leave it to Sir Michael and At Dawning. And as for variegatas, I am thankful I have not missed the interest and delight of Deseret, El Tovar, Picador, Vision, and a score of others in my garden.When we place a picture on the walls of our home, we carefully consider light and shadow but we are apt to place a garden picture anywhere we find a space. This is hard on iris, particularly hard on blends, I have two garden pictures where blends predominate; one, in partial shade, the other in full sunlight. It is interesting how many tall bearded iris like partial shade. I look at an iris blooming in the hot sunlight and hear it begging for shade! The season Jean Cayeux came down in price to fit the purse of a doctor’s wife I bought a rhizome. The same season, a friend sent me Jean as a gift. One I planted in partial shade, the other in full sunlight. Jean of the shadows is a larger clump, has more blooms, lovelier coloring and far greater lasting power. Among the iris in this planting in partial shade are Copper Lustre, Summer Tan, Brown Betty, K. V. Ayres, Lux, Evolution, Far West, and Setting Sun. Here I am cherishing a wonderful blend of Mr. Thurlow Weed which will be named and registered next year. This Zeta blend grows stiff and straight, on a 44-inch stalk and has an intriguing coloring of grey brown on a bronze gold ground. The falls, semi-flaring, are lightly washed violet blue. These iris are fastidious and do not like dull or gloomy neighbors. They are happy with light blues, and, by the way, Chancellor Kirkland likes to use Summer Cloud with Copper Lustre. They are also happy with pink blends likeTokay, Boadicea, and buff pink President Pilkington, and these are used in the picture which is framed at both ends by drifts of Euphony. I plan as my stock increases to paint this picture in two colors: tan and warm cream, for neaby is a brilliant splash of hemerocallis. The garden picture in full sunlight where blends predominate is made up of Mary Geddes. Golden Light, Crown Jewel, Golden Flare, Clara Noyes, Midgard, Rameses and Talisman. These deepen into the medium pink and rose of Coralie, then into the deep rose of Evelyn Benson toning into Golden Helmet and Dr. Kleinsorge’s new blood red iris Rebellion, the standards suffused with bronze and rose. This planting has an irregular border of rose clove pinks, citron yellow, citrinum and bronze gold pansies.

After all, color sense is an individual thing and each one of us looks at an iris with different eyes. Mrs. L. W. Kellogg looks at a sparkling iris and sees copper: I look at the same iris and find it aglow with light shining through stained glass. I see ruby, violet and Etruscan gold. Naturally, we would use a different setting for Copper Piece.

I have a trail of copper Indians that makes a stunning garden picture. The trail starts with Timagami, Aztec, Ojibuay, Magnetawan, Yucatan, and Junaluska. I wonder at the criticism that these look too much alike, for each one is distinctive and rarely beautiful. Following on this Indian trail are Ware Eagle, Burning Bronze, Zuni, Indian Chief, and at last, Trail’s End. I am experimenting in this group with Dr. Grant’s lustrous purple Indian Hills because a nearby drift of purple baptisia adds amazingly to the picture.

On a southern terrace, over the heads of the Indians, are drifts of blue and of white iris.

irises in the garden

[image from Cooley’s Gardens catalog for 1959]

This planting was suggested by the iris themselves. A few years ago I bought three of Prof. Essig’s iris: Easter Morn, Sierra Blue, and, my favorite of the Essig blues, Shining Waters. When they bloomed, the iris told me what to do with this terrace. Now, I have a drift made up of nine white iris followed by a drift made up of nine blue iris from light to medium. There are six white, and five blue drifts on the terrace, every one different but the same iris are repeatedly used. The best whites in this picture are Purissima, and in this Piedmont section of South Carolina Purissima has thrived for years, Easter Morn, Venus di Milo, Crystal Beauty, Joyance, Shasta, Columbine, Wambliska and Gudrun. The most outstanding white iris on the terrace last spring was Gudrun. The best blues are Shining Waters, Sierra Blue, Pale Moonlight, Pacific, Blue Monarch, El Capitan, Paulette, Missouri and Gloriole which surpassed all other blues in utter beauty. This terrace has a background of the single pink Japanese peony, Okino Nami.

On a higher level is a drift of gold. This is a new development which was to have twenty-five yellow iris but, my enthusiasm carried it to fifty. There is nothing subtle about the color scheme but it’s soul uplifting for all that! The ends of my drift start with cream yellow: Kalinga, Sunmist and Sweet Alibi at one end; at the other, Yellow Pearl, Dore and William Gary Jones. The last, a beautiful and little known iris by Brehm, was given me to try out in my garden and it is a beauty I would not be without. It grows on a strong stalk, a larger flower of good form, fine substance and beautiful color of ivory yellow. In my drift of gold, cream yellows run into soft yellows of Alice Harding, Desert Gold, Gold Standard, Helios, Phebus Cayeux, Pluie d’Or, then into deeper yellows of Chromylla, Eilah, Eclador, Gold Spangle, Lady Paramount, Lucre, Robert, Jasmania, W. R. Dykes, Padishah, Marvelous, Alta California, then into real gold of Coronation, Crysoro, Happy Days, Golden Bear, Berkeley Nugget, Treasure Island, Lucrezia Bori, California Gold and Naranja. Most of these rhizomes were taken from clumps in my own garden, three are 1937 introductions and I have not seen their blooms: Chancillor Kirkland’s Padishah and Marvelous and Dr. Kleinsorge’s Treasure Island, a few others that I have liked in other gardens will bloom for me the first time next spring. Lucrezia Bori is one of these, a beautiful and exciting iris. Everyone went mad over it in Nashville and Chattanooga, and the pendulum of popularity swung too far, now it swings back with a note of criticism. The Dykes influence was visible then, visible too was the slight olive reflex on the falls, Lucrezia Bori is a thrilling iris. In my drift of gold, I have used some varieties twice to produce a required shade of color tone. I have made blunders but I leave it to the iris. They will tell me when they bloom where changes must be made, In the lawn surrounding this drift sparkle myriads of Johnny-jump-ups. No keeping Johnnys from jumping in my garden!

In front of the house I have a rainbow picture in which I use sixty clumps, each a different variety, of tall, modern iris. These are planted eighteen inches apart and I have worked to make neighbors congenial for this is really more important to an iris than to a human being. In this bed of strong vivid coloring, yellows are of the greatest use. Last year Valor and Lady Paramount stole the show.

irises in the garden

[Image from Cooley’s Gardens catalog for 1965]

In partial shade is a smaller picture made up of pink and of blue iris. Through the center from top to bottom is an irregular planting of blue composed of Sierra Blue, Shining Waters, Pale Moonlight, El Capitan, Gloriole, Blue Triumph, Blue Monarch deepening to Blue Dusk. On each side is a pink drift. On the lefI are Pink Satin, Pink Opal, Airy Dream, China Rose, At Dawning and the beautiful Morocco Rose of Dr. Loomis, a 1937 introduction of Mrs, Pattison who has revealed so much beauty to iris lovers. In the right are Imperiel Blush, Thais, Ethelwyn, Dubar, Eros, Sandia, and Frances Chreitzberg. This is an iris by a Spartanburg amateur whose work with iris has the love, skill and infinite patience of the expert. His iris, Frances Chreitzberg, is a large, slightly ruffled flower of fresh, sparkling medium pink. Form, texture, substance and garden value are good. The medium stalk is strong and branching. On side of this garden picture is a frame of Noweta with columbine in pink and blue shades.Red iris are a joy to me — and a problem. Every gardener knows that dark colored iris have to be prayed over if managed successfully, but I have no trouble with the beautiful dark blues, violets and purples for they are carefully planted with other colors where, with a little help at times from the yellows they harmonize and make themselves perfectly at. home. But reds! They grow on a bank facing the rising sun, a home they like for they flourish and multiply. The upper part of the bank, sloping down from the rose garden, is covered with creeping roses, The red iris are far enough away to escape all entangling alliances but near enough for perfect drainage and for a perfect background. first I planted with my reds some stunning variegatas toning in with yellow selfs. I could hardly wait for May! What happened? My reds shrank into the shadows and had nothing to do with the gay picture. In another part of my garden I had a modern dashing drift, of red and of white tulips: Gloria Swanson and White Giant. These tulips solved the problem! All the variegatas and yellows went to other beds, instead, white iris were planted with my red. When I’d wake up winter nights I could see that picture! Spring came, and the iris bloomed. What happened? Well I felt uncomfortable, so did the red iris. They looked as if their slips were showing, and as if they knew it! Then I added medium blues and the picture went patriotic on me with poor coloring at that. In desperation I added medium pinks. Next July I plan to do what the iris have told me: leave the picture to red iris. I hope to have large enough clumps to be able to pull apart and combine carefully and gradually the varying shades and tones, avoiding sharp contrasts, making graduations very slowly, using three of one variety before “going into the next. I leave it to the iris. They will show me the way. The iris fan who doesn’t bother about iris pictures misses a lot of trouble — and a lot of joy.

It is against the rules to plant tall bearded iris in the rock garden but there comes a time in the late spring when the interesting Alpines lose interest and the wake robins go to sleep. Then, if you have planted a drift of dazzling Neon that laughs aloud, or of Jerry, the one red that stands up and cheers, the rock garden will be jerked back to a veritable flame of life. And how the iris like to scramble between those rocks! They are like children on a picnic.

After all. the old fashioned way of planting an iris is the best — bordering a path. Look at an iris and it tells you it likes to march, swords and banners flashing. For many years iris have marched along my path from the drive to the woods, a distance of 275 feet. It would be no fun merely planting a row of iris on each side of a path, if I did not find out from the iris themselves the comrades who like to march together. Beyond the iris, on both sides, are tulips and they have undergone a development as great as iris and have been replaced as often. Now my tulips are Modern Dutch Breeders and New Ideal Darwins and I have found that by planting a month later than I should, they bloom with my iris. One of my pictures is a combination of El Capitan, San Diego, and Ningal with a drift of the New Ideal Darwin tulip, Golden Goblet, and a planting of anchusa myosotidiflora. The combination following Ningal is Tuscany Gold, Honeydrop and Rose Dominion with a drift of the Modern Dutch Breeder tulip, Indian Chief, which is not unlike in color the iris of the same name, and a planting of Siberian wallflower.

As I confessed in the beginning, when making pictures of tall bearded iris, instead of studying a book, I study an iris. it is my belief that the real gardener is too busy wielding a hoe in the garden to find time for wielding a pen in the study. So I leave it to the iris!

irises in the garden

[Image from Cooley’s Gardens catalog for 1959]

Reprinted from Bulletin of the American Iris Society, October, 1937