Old House Gardens
From America’s Expert Source for Heirloom Flower Bulbs
Here’s a wealth of information about IRIS from our email Gazette and past catalogs, starting with the most recently published. For other topics, please see our main Newsletter Archives page.
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Who’s That Growing in My Garden? “Singularly Fearless” Mrs. George Darwin

For the first time this spring we’re offering the elegant little iris called ‘Mrs. George Darwin’. Like its equally wonderful sister-in-law ‘Mrs. Horace Darwin’ which we offered last year, it was bred in the late 1800s by Sir Michael Foster, a Cambridge physiology professor who laid the foundations for modern iris by crossing garden forms with unusual varieties — including the first tetraploids — sent to him by missionaries and travelers.
But who was Mrs. George Darwin? Wikipedia offers a short biography along with a charming portrait of her dressed all in white, like her namesake iris. Philadelphia-born Martha du Puy — who was always known as Maud — met her husband while visiting relatives in England. George was the son of the great Charles Darwin and a noted astronomer at Cambridge where the young couple became lifelong friends with Foster.
I learned a lot more in the entertaining Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood by Maud’s daughter Gwen Raverat. Her mother’s “casual happy-go-luckiness . . . was one of her most attractive qualities,” Raverat writes, but she was also “singularly fearless” and “always on the side of progress,” with a “sturdy American belief in independence” that made her “encourage us to do things for ourselves, unlike the well brought up English children of our class, some of whom did not know that you could make a bed yourself.” When Maud died in 1947 at the age of 88, her obituary noted her campaigning for women police officers.
Although iris aren’t mentioned in the 66-page preview of Period Piece at Google Books, there is a funny account of Maud’s first meeting with Foster, who seemed a bit tipsy. Even better, Raverat’s description of Maud’s physical appearance suggests why Foster named this particular white iris with its touches of gold and purple for her. “My mother . . . had golden-brown hair and dark blue eyes and such a lovely complexion that people often thought that she was made up.” (Jan. 2014)

Toast the Holidays with . . . Heirloom Iris?

With the curiosity of a scientist and the writing skills of a master story-teller, Amy Stewart is one of my favorite authors. In her 2013 New York Times best-seller The Drunken Botanist, she explores the hundreds of “plants that create the world’s great drinks,” from barley and hops to obscurities such as quandong, sloe berry, and even a couple of centuries-old iris:
“The pharmacy and perfumery of Santa Maria Novella, established by Dominican friars in Florence in 1221, gained notoriety for its use of the rhizomes of iris. They were not the first — Greek and Roman writings mention it — but their perfumes, cordials, and powders contained liberal doses of this rare and precious substance.
“Orris was popular not so much for its fragrance — although it does contain a compound called irone that gives it a faint violet smell — but as a fixative, holding other fragrances or flavors in place by contributing a missing atom that would otherwise make the fragrance volatile and easily released from the solution it is suspended in.
“None of this chemistry was understood at first. Perfumers and distillers would also not have understood why the rhizomes had to dry for two to three years before they become effective as a fixative. We now know that it takes that long for a slow oxidation process to occur, . . [which] causes irone to form . . . .
“Only about 173 acres of orris are cultivated worldwide. Most of the orris is either I. pallida ‘Dalmatica’, grown in Italy, or . . . I. germanica var. Florentina, grown in Morocco, China, and India. I. germanica ‘Albicans’ is also used . . . .
“To extract the orris, the rhizome must first be pulverized and steam-distilled to produce a waxy substance called orris butter, or beurre d’iris. Then alcohol is used to extract an absolute, which is . . . a stronger version of an essential oil.
“Orris is found in nearly every gin and in many other spirits. Its popularity in perfume is due to the fact that it not only holds the fragrance in place but clings to the skin as well. It also happens to be a very common allergen, which explains why allergy sufferers might be sensitive to cosmetics and other fragrances — as well as gin.”
See a field of pallida ‘Dalmatica’ farmed in Italy at oldhousegardens.com/PallidaField.aspx . (Dec. 2013)

Adventures in Forcing: Bearded Iris

We’ve enjoyed forcing all sorts of bulbs into winter bloom, but we never even considered trying it with bearded iris until we read this suggestion from almost 100 years ago by the pioneering iris evangelist Charles S. Harrison. In his popular Manual on the Iris he writes:
“Take some strong clumps, not too large, say two or three years old. Leave the earth on them, take them up just before the ground freezes, put them in large pots and place in a cool cellar. It will not hurt them to freeze. If they do, let the frost come out gradually. Then bring them up to the light and put them in the south window and you can have flowers through February and March, and by planting white ones you can have beautiful Easter flowers. . . . Grown in the house they will be more beautiful and delicate than if grown out of doors. . . . .
“The expense will be small and the results extremely satisfactory. Sheltered from the weather they will continue longer in bloom than out of doors. Other winter flowers are expensive but these you can secure at little cost and when you get started you can get them from your own garden. It will be found that this immense family will furnish such a variety in bloom and in color they will be a constant surprise and delight.”
Will this actually work? We have to admit we’re a bit skeptical, but we just potted up a couple of iris for our unheated back room and a couple more for our basement refrigerator. (We doubt that any modern cellar is cold enough to keep iris dormant.) Watch for a report on our results here in the spring, and if you’re adventurous enough to try it yourself, please let us know how it goes for you! (Nov. 2013)

See What You’ll Get: Fat, Freshly Dug, Spring-Shipped Iris (for Zone 8, Too)

We do bearded iris differently. Instead of shipping dry rhizomes in mid-summer the way everyone else does, we dig newly sprouting plants out of the barely thawed ground here in early April and ship them that very same day. With good care they’ll often bloom their first summer, and by the next year they’ll be two or three times as big as their summer-planted kin — making them, in our opinion, a great deal. To see a big, beautiful example of what we’ll be shipping this spring, click the link for freshly dug plants at the beginning of our iris section.
And here’s good news for gardeners in zone 8 of the South and Southwest. Despite our warnings that planting iris there in the heat of April might not work, almost all of our customers who tried it reported that our iris thrived — so now you, too, can order them with confidence. Thanks to the iris-lovers in zone 8 South and Southwest who helped us figure this out — and enjoy! (March 2013)

Fragrant Iris: A 1917 Expert’s Top Picks

If you’d like some fragrant iris to plant this spring, here are seven that Walter Stager recommended in his 1917 Tall Bearded Iris. We’re currently offering three of them, and we’re increasing ‘Monsignor’ and ‘Fairy’ to offer in the future:
Dalmatica, Florentina, Monsignor, and Walhalla are among the most fragrant. Fairy is perhaps the most fragrant of all, and Caprice and Madame Pacquitte have an especially delicious fragrance.”
For six more, see the Fragrance column in our Heirloom Iris Chart. Then do your nose a favor and order now for April delivery! (Feb. 2013)

Pallida Dalmatica in the Fields of Italy (and Your Garden)

The grape-scented, lavender-blue iris known as I. pallida ‘Dalmatica’ has been used in perfumery since ancient times, and it’s still being farmed for that purpose today — as our good customer Debbie Hughes of Wellsville, Kansas, discovered while vacationing in Tuscany. Debbie’s photo of a field of Iris pallida inspired us to learn more, and a Google search led us to the Sagrona vineyard, “a small family vineyard in the heart of Chianti” where I. pallida is grown amid the grapes as it has been for centuries.
As you’ll see at Sagrona.com, it’s not the iris flowers that are harvested but the rhizomes. Peeled by hand and dried for two to five years, they develop a violet-like scent and fixative properties that preserve the chemical structure of other fragrances, prolonging their aroma. Ground and distilled, a ton of dried rhizomes — known as orris root — yields 4.5 pounds of a thick, oily, and very expensive substance called orris butter which is still widely used in making high-end fragrances — and gin.
But there are many other reasons to grow this great old iris. “Among its sterling qualities,” writes Sydney Edison in A Patchwork Garden, “are a tenacious resistance to borers, stems strong enough to support the medium-sized blossoms, and superb gray-green foliage that is an asset in the garden instead of an eyesore. . . . A wild species found originally in Dalmatia [roughly the former Yugoslavia], Iris pallida appears somewhere in the family tree of most modern cultivars but it has none of their faults. . . . I prefer this lovely, deliciously scented hand-me-down to all other tall bearded irises.” (Dec. 2012)

Beating Iris Borers — and Weaving Baskets from Iris Leaves

Right now is the best time to protect your heirloom iris from borers with a simple garden clean-up. It’s easy, organic, and as a bonus you can use the leaves you remove to make some very interesting baskets.
In the fall, iris borer moths lay their eggs on iris leaves and anything similar that’s close by. In the spring, the eggs hatch into tiny grubs that chew their way down into the rhizomes and wreak havoc. So the trick is to eliminate the eggs in the fall. To do this, simply wait until after a good hard frost (which kills the adult moths) and then (a) cut back all iris leaves to a couple of inches and (b) remove all dead leaves and stalks as well as any debris and mulch that’s near the plants. To be safe, don’t compost this stuff. Burn it or throw it out with the garbage — or save the best leaves to make into baskets.
Although we’ve never looked at the browning, beat-up leaves of our iris and thought, “Hey, those would be great for basket-making,” our good customer Frances Garrison makes it look easy and appealing in her FaireGarden blog. If you decide to try it, please send us a photo of your results and we’ll share it with our readers — and no matter how your basket turns out, we promise not to laugh. (Nov. 2012)

Investing in Beauty: A Timeless Tip from 1916

We stumbled upon this unusual investment tip in the 1916 Manual on the Iris by Nebraska nurseryman and minister Charles S. Harrison:
“Beauty is Wealth. Raise a plenty of it and be rich. No investment can pay better. You build a new house at great expense and it begins to deteriorate from the moment you enter it. In a short time your beautiful furniture becomes second hand.
“Out in your yard ... peonies double every two years, which gives you 50 percent interest on your money. And the radiant iris in ‘garments of woven delight’ gives you ten from one in two years. Beautify your grounds and double the value of your land. It makes a great difference whether your yard is a landscape of beauty or a pasture for pigs or a hospital for disabled machinery.” (August 2012)

Two Great Resources for Heirloom Iris Lovers

Historic Iris Preservation Society — Founded in 1988, this dedicated group offers help in identifying and finding heirloom iris, an annual rhizome sale, a journal, reprinted works, and a terrific website and e-zine at hips-roots.com. The site is free and the rest is a mere $10/year.
Classic Irises and the Men and Women Who Created Them — This exhaustively researched history by Clarence Mahan tells the fascinating stories of the people who developed the great irises of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s not light reading, but it is superb. (2011-12 catalog)

1927 Advice: Companion Plants for “Loveliest” Iris

Louise Beebe Wilder was a popular garden writer in the early 1900s who’s been called “America’s Gertrude Jekyll.” Here’s some advice from her 1927 My Garden about one of our favorite iris:
“‘Florentina’ . . . is one of the loveliest of irises, and its French-gray crepe flowers are invaluable to us in creating May pictures. It is fine with Dicentras [bleeding hearts] and tall pink tulips of the Cottage and Darwin types; with the yellow Doronicums [leopard’s bane] and the pretty lavender-flowered Phlox divaricata; and is splendid in spreading groups near pink-flowered crabapple trees.” (March 2012)

Now’s the Time: Fall Clean-Up Beats Iris Borers

Now is the best time to conquer iris borers — and it’s easy. Cleanliness is the key. In the fall, iris borer moths lay their eggs on iris leaves and anything similar that’s close by. In the spring, the eggs hatch into tiny grubs that crawl up the leaves and then chew their way down into the rhizomes where they wreak havoc. By eliminating the eggs in the fall, you’ll save yourself a lot of grief. Simply wait till after a good hard frost (which kills the adult moths) and then (a) cut back all iris leaves to a couple of inches and (b) remove all dead leaves and stalks as well as any debris and mulch that’s near the plants. To be safe, don’t compost this stuff; burn it or throw it out with the garbage. Repeat this simple, poison-free clean-up every fall and you’ll have very little problem with borers. Now isn’t that easy? Learn more at www.ksre.ksu.edu/news/story/fall_cleanup110410.aspx . (Nov. 2011)

Happy Iris Stories

We doubled our iris offerings for the coming year, thanks in part to the generosity of some of our Old West Side neighbors who shared their heirloom iris with us. Many of them passed along stories with their rhizomes, too. Jean Henry, for example, told us that her ‘Pallida Dalmatica’ came from her Iowa grandmother who got it from the woman who babysat for Jean’s father and later Jean herself. It was “the standard iris” in that area, but Violet Kieffer — pronounced “Wiolet,” Jean explained — was “very proud of them” and “she’d be thrilled to know they made it into your catalog.”
‘Flavescens’ is another very old iris that will grow just about anywhere. For example, a few years ago my wife Jane and I were walking along the wooded, hillside path that circles a small lake in the Brighton State Recreation Area. At one point the hillside was so steep that the ground to our left was almost at eye level, and there in the crowded, densely shaded undergrowth I was shocked to see a few scrawny bearded iris. They must have been survivors from a long-forgotten home that once stood where now wilderness ruled. I was so impressed that I collected one small rhizome and brought it home to a sunny spot in my own garden. This spring it finally bloomed for the first time, and — you guessed it — it was the indomitable ‘Flavescens’. (Aug. 2011)

Site of the Month: “Wild Lakota” Iris and Other Legacy Bulbs

“My favorite old homestead flower is a bearded iris that I’ve nicknamed ‘Wild Lakota’. It has a lovely lemony scent.” So wrote Dennis Kramb of southwest Ohio in the Pacific Bulb Society’s email discussion group. “The roadside places where I’ve found it are nowhere near any existing home,” he continued, “so I can’t imagine how many decades they’ve been able to persist there, untended. I collected a few pieces years ago and now have a big patch of it in my front garden.” That sounded like an iris we ought to offer, but when we looked at Dennis’s photo of it, we discovered we already do. It’s 200-year-old, primrose-yellow ‘Flavescens’.
From roses to daffodils to asparagus, some garden plants are so tough that they can persist in the wild without care for many, many years. Some are so commonly found there that they’ve made it into wildflower guide books where they’re typically marked as “alien” or “garden escape.” Although the Pacific Bulb Society focuses on truly wild bulbs, they’ve included a long list of “Legacy Bulbs” — “bulbs that outlast their owners” — in the Wiki section of their excellent website. You’ll find ‘Flavescens’ and ‘Crimson King’ iris there, along with descriptions and photos of bulbs from almost every genus we sell, from Allium to Zephyranthes. It’s fun to explore, it may help you identify bulbs you’ve found in the wild, and it’s convincing testimony to the staying power of heirlooms. (April 2011)

Sydney Eddison’s Favorite Iris

“I am no longer a fan of the modern bearded irises which I once lusted after,” Sydney Eddison writes in Gardening for a Lifetime, “because borers always wreak havoc with their foliage, chewing the edges of the leaves and coating them with slime. While the plants rarely die, they look so awful that you wish they would.
“The species Iris pallida is a different story. Mine came with the house forty-eight years ago and can still be found in other old gardens. I recently saw it for sale in Williamsburg, Virginia, where the historic gardens contain only plants available in colonial times. This old iris can be easily identified by its bloomy blue-green leaves, which stand at attention throughout the season and are seldom ruined by borers. The three-foot flower stalks bear five or six modest blue-violet flowers that have a delicious scent. And after the brief flowering season in May, the foliage usually remains handsome all season.” (March 2011)

Tough Little ‘Gracchus’ Iris Wins Praise from Virginia to Alaska

Your mother was right. Beauty is more than skin-deep, and that’s true for plants, too. ‘Gracchus’, for example, isn’t an “oh-my-gosh-look-at-that” iris, but it is an exceptional one.
According to an article in the Historic Iris Preservation Society’s Roots (fall 2000), Schreiner’s Iris, the country’s largest iris nursery, is now working to “reintroduce hardiness, disease resistance, and vigor to modern bearded iris using ‘Gracchus’ as the foundation stock.”
The strength and vigor of ‘Gracchus’ has also impressed Straea from Somerville, Massachusetts, who writes at DavesGarden.com, “I love ‘Gracchus’! It produces an amazing number of flowers, and they’re on sturdy stems that don’t bend at all in my windy garden despite often having four or five flowers on them. In addition, it bounced back from an iris borer infestation last year with little intervention on my part (all I did was cut off the worst part of the infestation) and is now more vigorous than ever.”
In Juneau, Alaska, reports Glacierdawg at DavesGarden.com, “‘Gracchus’ has been growing at the Jensen-Olson Arboretum since the property was originally homesteaded in 1904. It blooms well here despite the cool, wet, maritime climate. While no plant is completely maintenance free, this one comes close. A top dressing of compost in late summer and deadheading is all that we do for it.”
And in Portsmouth, Virginia, “‘Gracchus’ is my husband’s favorite iris in my whole garden of 300+ irises,” writes Homefire, also at DavesGarden.com. “It is a fast grower with many flowers. He always enters it in iris shows and it won Best Historic Iris here in 2007. It was introduced in 1884, so for an iris cultivar to remain in existence with people still growing it that long tells its own story. Highly recommended!” (Dec. 2010)

Zac Posen Gives Us a Shout-Out At Vogue.com

For Mother’s Day this year, Vogue.com asked twenty top fashion designers and models — from Vera Wang to Gisele Bundchen — to talk about “the gifts they intend to give or hope to receive.” Our favorite reply came from Zac Posen, the wildly popular Tribeca designer whose “strong, feminine aesthetic has become a favorite of style leaders” such as Kate Winslett, Jennifer Lopez, and Beyonce, and whose off-the-rack collections are currently selling at Target and Saks.
“I plan to give my mother ‘Madame Chereau’ heirloom iris from Old House Gardens,” Zac wrote. “They are the most sought-after iris of the nineteenth century and have a history of staying alive. I remember when I was younger we had a field of iris, which was beautiful! I want to fill a field with irises for my mother one day.”
Thanks, Zac! We hope your mom loves them! (June 2010)

‘Flavescens’ Transcendent: Poster Child for Heirloom Flowers

Here’s a photo that will gladden the hearts of heirloom flower lovers everywhere. Left to fend for itself in the weeds alongside a dirt road not far from Kansas City, pale yellow ‘Flavescens’ iris has multiplied without care into an endless swath of pale, shimmering yellow. (March 2010)

Saving Local Heirlooms at the Pickle Barrel Iris Garden

Some of the most exciting heirloom flowers aren’t found in catalogs or gardens. They’re just out there, in the wild, the last reminders of houses and gardeners that are long gone. In a small town on the shores of Lake Superior, our friend Nancy McDonald decided to collect some of these relics and display them in a living museum of local garden history. Her charming, photo-filled account of the Pickle Barrel House Historic Iris Garden — home now to “Linnamaki Purple,” “Baker Grade” (from the site of a railroad switchman’s cabin), and other “noids” — is an inspiring story that may get you saying, “I could do that!” (March 2010)

Divide Iris and Defeat Borers: Now is the Time!

If your iris plantings have become over-crowded, or you want to share some with friends, now is the time to dig and divide them. “It’s easy, and fun,” our friend Ken Druse wrote recently at RealDirtRadio.com. “I dig up my iris rhizomes with a garden fork when they are dormant — now. Most of the soil will fall off the thick rhizome and reveal slender roots. I trim back the leaves into ‘fans’ and cut off the oldest section of rhizome (which will not bloom again). I dip the rhizome (holding it by the leaves) in a 10% solution of household chlorine bleach for about ten seconds. I set them out to drain on some newspaper, and then replant with the top of the rhizome just at the surface of the soil. Sun-baked rhizomes bloom best.”
“Older varieties of bearded iris do not need dividing as often as newer ones,” Ken adds. To see the six heirlooms we’re offering, click here. To learn more about dividing iris and combating borers, listen to Ken’s July 3 podcast. (July 2009)

Your Feedback, Please: How Are Our Iris Doing?

We shipped bearded iris for the first time this spring, and we’re eager to hear how they’re growing. Have they settled into your garden happily, and did you get blooms this first summer? Our trial-runs were successful, but we want to make sure we’re delivering iris in a way that works for all of our customers.
Though most sources ship them in mid-summer, a separate, iris-only shipping season would mean our customers would have to order a full $30 worth (our minimum order) instead of just one or two. With spring delivery, on the other hand, most gardeners will get bigger plants faster along with blooms in a couple of months rather than a year. The way we see it, that’s a better way to serve our customers and to help preserve heirloom iris. (June 2009)

If Javelinas Roam Your Garden, Plant Iris!

Though we didn’t include bearded iris on our recent list of animal-resistant bulbs, our good customer Louise Coulter of Payson, Arizona, emailed us to vouch for them:
“In my area which is at 5,000 feet in Arizona’s northern section there is an animal called javelina or wild pig. With cloven hoofs, tusks, and large foraging families, it devastates unprotected bulbs in gardens — except for iris. Seems they can’t eat iris. So at thousands of homes here, where the yards are unfenced, iris naturalize and are ubiquitous. Seems the local nurseries obtained a limited color palette of them each year, so one can almost tell how old the bulbs are by their color. For years one could only get shades of variegated purple and a lovely pale salmon.” (Nov. 2008)


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