June 5, 2013

Inspired by Artisional Iris

The fields at Joe Pye Weed's Garden show off some of the incredible and talented breeding results performed by
passionate life-long iris breeders Jan Sacks and Marty Schafer in Carlisle, MA.

Today. I want to talk about my favorite group of iris, those known as Siberian Iris, and for that, I am visiting a friends Siberian Iris breeding farm, to show you not only some amazing new colors and forms, but to help rally more interest in this overlooked group of Iris.

First, some Iris 101 - Everyone can close their eyes and visualize what an Iris looks like, but this massive genus ( with 300 plus species) can make a new gardener feel over-whelmed, and an experienced gardener, well, overwhelmed too. Without getting too geeky on you - if you are interested in growing iris,my executive brief for you  would simplify the top line groups - you know, those that grow from bulbs vs roots, vs rhizomes.  If you prefer to generalize, which can be easy in a huge genus where close-ups of each flower may all look at first, to be similar, I would organize all the different types of iris into 6 buckets. 

Bearded Iris - those flouncy huge Iris which gardeners either adore, or hate - you know, those with thick rhizomes that look like ginger roots. Your grandmother grew these...

Siberian Iris, with grassy foliage, hardy as and oak tree yet harder to find, and yeah, your grandmother grew these too, usually purple, often surrounding a gazing ball...

The Japanese Iris, - unless your granny was a serious gardener, most likely, you've only seen these painted on Japanese screens at a museum. Lovely, but a bit more demanding.

Florist Iris - you know, Dutch Iris - those blueish-violet ones you get at the florist, often as tight buds, but the flowers last for a few days. 

Louisiana Iris - Iris that I cannot grow, but similar to Japanese Iris for more southern gardeners

Rock Garden Iris - here I included dwarf, bulbous ones, or those dwarf species that grow from creeping Rhizomes

Collector Iris  hard to grow Alpine House forms - from the Middle East and Turkey - Aril's. Junos and the like 

A ginger colored seedling - expands the color range of Siberian Iris

This sorting is rough, and not anything like the way the American Iris Society organizes groups, but it helps me think about what I can and cannot grow. One needs to be realistic with a plant family such as iris, as someone walking into a nursery asking for and iris plant, could be thinking about any one of these. The AIS divides first all iris as bearded or non bearded, and then includes species as a group, but truth be told, there are species in all of these groups ( species, meaning how that particular iris appears as a wildflower where it is native).

Siberian Iris a known for being long-lived and floriferous. Making them ideal candidates for perennial borders.

More advanced gardeners divide Iris by HOW they grow. Like... Rhizomes, clumping roots, bulbs or just roots.For more info, check out the American Iris Society site. There you can lose yourself in the acronyms ( SDB - Standard Dwarf Bearded. MDB - Miniature Dwarf Bearded, what iris don't have beards, why an iris would ever want a beard, etc. Knock yourself out, but I'll be thrilled if you just takeaway that there are many types of iris', and that you have a rough idea about what iris group you are talking about the next time you go to a nursery - this is important, and each type requires a different cultural treatment. Also, if you are looking for cut-flower iris, know that the bulbous types sometimes last longer than a day, but that most flowers only last a few hours to a day. Just important FYI if you pin these to Pinterest, hoping to get some for a wedding.

The breeding fields at Joe Pye Weed's Garden are jam packed full of incredible, new iris varieties. Each one gets a different colored flag, unidentifing whether the seedling is worthy of the compost pile, or for additional breeding.

Without writing an essay about the broad and diverse word of Irids, I really just wanted to talk a but about some fine garden iris - particularly, those known as Siberian Iris'. These are clump forming, often long-lived iris' that seem to be overlooked by many contemporary gardeners, and I really don't know why. I could guess that first, there are few if any commercial growers growing them anymore, so the distribution channels are dry, or I could guess ( rightly, so) that there are few breeders dedicated to advancing this group, so the public as well as buyers at wholesale nurseries over-look them, or I could guess that perhaps people associate Siberian Iris with the few, antique cultivars that most every gardener has seen - a very 'wild' looking, purple strain with rather unremarkable flowers - yeah, the one your grandmother grew that was passed on to you.

Gentle grey tints, and mustard gold colors are emerging as hot trend colors with Siberian Iris. Few flowers can offer this palette.

My friend Jess admires the Siberian Iris' big cousin the German Bearded Iris, which is more common, but often
plagued by more disease and the need for constant care.

Jess responded " But with all of these amazing colors, like custard yellow, butterscotch, mustard gold and those gray ones, they would be so hot right now at hip nurseries like Terrain..why arent' they being sold there?" "good question" I added. Yet, I knew the answer was clear. Plants developed for large retail distribution must meet specific criteria to even be considered worthy of micro-propigation, let along the years of field testing required for a large Dutch corporation or an American distributor to even think about marketing a plant variety to the masses. I am not being critical here, as shelf height, performance under the stressful conditions of black plastic nursery containers, and long shelf life are essential for big box stores if they are ever going to purchase a truck full of a particular, over performing plant which is also well behaved.

" But why don't we see these colors at nurseries then?" Jess asked.
Jan knew the answer " Because it takes at least ten years for one of our selections to even make it to a wholesale grower. Breeding iris is not difficult, but it does take time. A couple or three years for seedlings to grow before they even think about blooming, then at least 5 years of perfomance in our field, where we evaluate each seedling looking at a variety of traits, be it a new color, a better color, flower form, height, either tall, or short. Quantity of flowers produced, branching or not, resistance to diseases and pests..." and the list went on. " If you are buying a Siberian Iris at a nursery today, you are most likely buying a variety that was hot in the 1970's or 1980's". 

I love the new brown tints, as well as the golden mustard colors when combined with berry tones.

I would add that if you get one from a friend or family member ( as these are on the short-list for pass-along plants), then you are most likely getting a default form from the early part of the 20th Century or late 19th Century - a time when the Siberian Iris was common as a perennial plant, encircling bird baths, lining walks ( as it can be divided annually), or engulfing a gazing ball. Siberian Iris however are worth re-discovering, as they offer some of the finest characteristics that most other iris cannot compete with - over performance. It's easy to fall in love with those giant, flouncy German Bearded Iris' that smell like grape jam, and look as if they were constructed from delicate tissue paper and hand painted in bright, watercolor type tints, but the lesser known Siberian Iris has one thing over its fancier cousin - it gets better with each year, rather than requiring annual division of fans. 

All from the same seed pod, one of the skills needed by any plant breeder is the ability to edit
offspring. Just look at the variety here, and imagine how you would choose the best? Would your
criteria include height? Fragrance? Amount of buds or flowers? Color? Awesomeness?

The Siberian Iris' offer something year round in the garden, so I feel that they are far superior. Their grassy blades of erect foliage along always looks nice, adding a well needed vertical texture in the perennial bed, the flowers of course, are produced in abundance, whereas the German Bearded Iris in all of it's forms, only offers a few flowers during its short season. Siberian Iris' also have artful seedpods, which can be left on the plant for winter interest, or picked for dried arrangements. The only problem I know with Siberian Iris is that they are difficult to find - which just may be the first thing I address when that big company calls me someday for me to put together my ultimate curated set of top 10 plants that I will market under my own brand ( heh heh). Until then, you now know that these amazing plants exist, and you know where to find some of the newest varieties - Jan and Marty's Joe Pye Weed's garden.

Soft pinks and mauves have yet to win awards with Siberian Iris ( just check the RBG awards list - where seletions from 20 years ago only feature purple and one yellow variety). Clearly, there is something far more interesting and important
happening with the Siberian Iris - so who is going to move to exploit this trend?

Asclepias incarnata, one of our native mildweeds, stems are pinned to a sweet pea fence, so that the Baltimore Orioles can use the dried bard to make their long, stocking-like nests.

As soon as we walked down the sloping hill in Jan and Marty's back yard, we could hear both Baltimore Orioles and Rose Breasted Grosbeaks - two of our most colorful summer migratory songbirds, and both have a similar song which is so appealing. Jan pointed out that these Orioles seem to  return each year, and that this year they have at least 3 nesting pairs on their property. It's easy to see why they return, which their large pond off to the side, where they draw their irrigation water, and towering white and red oak trees that Orioles prefer, the location already has much to offer, but Jan shared a secret which I found fascinating - a few years ago Jan and Marty discovered that their Baltimore Orioles had very specific nest building resources on their property -  they discovered that they prefer to use the peeling, white bark on the perennial weed Asclepias incarnata which they used to pull in after frost in their large cutting garden, but now, they allow it to not only remain all winter, they actually cut the stems and clamp them to their pea fencing, as the Orioles continue to pull the 12 inch strips of strong, stringy bark, so nesting couples are so territorial, that they won't allow the other nesting pairs to harvest their cache, leaving Jan and Marty to cut string and yarn, which they leave on their porch roof, which the other orioles use.

On the left, a Baltimore Oriole nest constructed with the bark of Asclepias incarnata, a native milkweed which
has long, stringy fiberous bark when allowed to dry in the field through a winter.

These reminded me of epaulet's on a British Captain's jacket, but then again, how many iris are named after that? Jess asked Jan how they name their plants, and she responded with "Many of the names come from country dances as we used to be folk dancers".  

The breeders weren't keen on this color and form, but I lust for it!

With such a color palette available, I would hope that those of us who care about such things, will help promote these iris in our own gardens.


  1. Wow! What a great primer on the iris family!

  2. I agree with you. Oh, I would love that orange one!!

  3. Just give us one nursery that sells these amazing Siberians and I'll do my part! They're all so beautiful. The baby pink is so sweet, and the sunset gold I could stare at all day. You should never have shown us without a place to get them!


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