Irises are classic garden plants. There are more than 200 species around the world but most gardeners are only aware of a few of these species. Most common is the large tall bearded iris (Iris germanica). You can find an iris for any climate from deserts to swamps. They also live in the Far North and the Deep South. The biggest requirement is sunlight. Iris come in every color of the rainbow and those that study Greek mythology know that the name “Iris” comes from the Greek goddess of the rainbow. You can find an iris in nearly any color; blue, purple, yellow, pink, white, black, orange, red, brown and combinations of these colors blended together. There is nothing like the classic, elegant shape of the iris. It has been a symbol of royalty since very early history.
Other types of Iris that are not “Bearded” include bulbous irises like Dutch, English, reticulated and Junos iris. Then there are irises with rhizomes, which besides the bearded iris also include beardless iris like Japanese, Siberian and Louisiana Iris. There are many native and species iris growing around the world. Our own native iris is the “blue flag” (iris versicolor). Another iris not mentioned so far is the crested irises.
Bearded Irises have been popular for a very long time. Studying historic iris is an interesting pastime. They have stuck around because they are so easy to grow and one of the easiest flowers to hybridize, yielding an ever increasing array of rainbow colors shapes and sizes. Beardless irises don’t cross breed as easily but bearded irises will often produce fertile seedlings from crosses between different species. They are persistent and although it is best to keep them weeded they will survive neglect for many years. Thousands of bearded iris varieties exist.
In general, the smallest ones bloom first, beginning in April here in Wisconsin and continuing through June. Each variety blooms for around 2 weeks but having different types will greatly extend the season. It is difficult to get Iris to re-bloom this far north but some will bloom again in fall in some parts of the country. When we do occasionally get a fall bloom we really appreciate it.
Our modern “Bearded Iris” hybrids come from a wide variety of species especially pumialie for the smaller iris and elatae for the large ones. Iris are classified by the American Iris Society into six groups; miniature dwarf, standard dwarf, intermediate, miniature tall, border and tall. Then to throw a wrench in there are the arilbred irises which are Oncos and Regelias iris interbred with bearded irises.
Sometimes when reading plant descriptions it is difficult to understand what the growers are talking about. I will review for you here basic Iris terminology. Click on the links to see an example of the term or refer to the line drawing. Use the back button to return to this article.
Beard – The fuzzy hairs on top of each of the falls.
Falls – The lower three petals of the flower. These are the petals that hang down.
Flounces – a small petal-like appendage that extends from the end of the beard. Not all irises have them.
Hafts – the top parts of the fall on either side of the beard that is near the center and connects to the stem. This is the heart of the iris.
Horns – when the end of the beard is raised from the fall and turned upward like a spike but is not long enough or ruffled enough to be considered a flounce. Not all irises have them.
Lace – When the edges of petals are serrated.
Rim – A thin edge of color around falls or standards.
Ruffles – Flower edges are fluted or wavy.
Shoulder – Another name for the haft.
Signal – A patch of color at the top center of the falls, coming out from the throat and surrounding the beard. This area is often white or yellow.
Spoons – much like a horn or a flounce except that it is spoon shaped. This appendage extends from the tip of the beard.
Spot – A different colored area on the falls; it may cover most of the fall or be smaller.
Standards – The upper three petals of the flower. These stand upright.
Style Arms – These are the 3 small upright structures found in the heart of the iris bloom above the beard.
Other Iris Terminology
Form – Referring to the shape of the flower. Good form means they have good balance and proportions.
Rebloomer – an iris that blooms in any other season than after normal spring bloom, usually summer or fall. Just because an iris is listed as a rebloomer does not mean that it always will. Irises are more likely to rebloom in warmer areas that have longer seasons. Extra water and or fertility as well as “nice” weather that is not to hot or too cold can also encourage rebloom.
Substance – The thickness of the petals. “Good substance” can help the flowers stand up to wind and rain.
Texture – Sheen or finish on the surface of the petals. Texture can also include other descriptive words like diamond dusted which means that it sparkles in the sun or satiny, shimmering or velvety.
Tall Bearded (TB) – over 27.5 inches tall usually with 2 or more branches and at least 7 flowers, Most are taller than this however, 38 to 40 inches is not unusual. Usually the flowers are bigger than other iris too. These are the last irises to bloom but there are earlier and later bloomers within this category also.
Border Bearded (BB) – These irises are again the same height as IB and MTB iris coming in at 16 to 27.5″ tall. What makes these different than the other 2 classes at this height are, first, they bloom late, along with the later tall bearded iris. Next the flowers are larger than IB or BB iris. These flowers can be up to 5 inches across and 8.5 inches tall.
Miniature Tall Bearded (MTB) – These are the same height as the IB irises at 16 to 27.5″ tall. They bloom in the mid-late season alongside the earlier tall bearded iris. The difference is that they whole plant is smaller including the flowers. They are also sometimes called bouquet iris or astable iris. The flowers are smaller and they are carried on slender stems. They also tend to be fragrant.
Intermediate Bearded (IB) – These irises are generally 16 to 27.5″ tall. They bloom in between the standard dwarf bearded and tall bearded irises. The branched stalks are usually taller than the leaves unlike MDB and SDB iris. Most flowers are between 3.5 and 5 inches wide.
Standard Dwarf Bearded (SDB) – This class is usually 8 to 16″ tall, some varieties are branched, but many are not. The flowers are generally less than 4 inches wide many are smaller. These little beauties are early also, usually starting right after the peak of the MDB’s but before the Intermediate irises.
Miniature Dwarf Bearded (MDB) – These are the smallest and earliest they can be up to 8″ tall, but many are shorter. The flowers are usually about 1.5 to 3 inches wide. They usually bloom in April here in Wisconsin. MDB’s have no branching so they don’t bloom as long but they are a nice early addition to the bearded iris family.
Median – This is not actually a class, but you may hear this term. It includes iris in the following classes: Border Bearded, Intermediate Bearded, Miniature Tall Bearded, or Standard Dwarf Bearded.
Iris color terminology
Amoena – White or near white standards with colored falls.
Bicolor – Light or medium standards and deeper contrasting falls.
Bitone – The standards and falls are different shades of the same color. The falls are usually but not always darker.
Blend – A combination of two or more colors with one of the colors always being yellow. The colors can be even or unevenly applied.
Broken Color – The flower has random splashes of color.
Glaciata – The flower is a very clear white, yellow or pink with no purple or red shades.
Ground Color – This is the main color seen under any spots or veins. This term is usually used with plicatas.
Luminata – The style arms & hafts are white or yellow; and the rest of the flower is a solid color including the beards. There may be veining on falls but there should be no plicata marks.
Neglecta – This is a blue or violet bitone iris, where the standards are lighter than the falls.
Plicata – These have a stippled, dotted or stitched margin color on lighter ground color, or on white.
Reverse – Any of the other mentioned colors, except that the standards are darker than the falls.
Rim or Edge – This is a thin line of color around the falls and /or the standards.
Self – This is what you call an iris that is one solid color.
Variegata – These irises have yellow or near yellow standards with falls that are a deeper color like purple or brown. The falls may be solid or mixed colors.
Veins – These are lines usually emanating from the throat that are a contrasting or darker color or darker color than the falls.
Now that you know “all about Iris” you can amaze your friends with your beautiful flowers and your awesome knowledge.