Early Irises

February 13th, 2012

by Tom Fischer

In Portland, iris season starts early–late January, in most years. This is fine with me, since I have a thing for them. The reticulate irises (named for the species Iris reticulata) are super early-blooming, hardy, easy to grow, and long on charm. If you don’t grow them, you’re missing one of the great gardening pleasures of late winter and early spring. There are quite a few named selections, mostly hybrids between I. reticulata and I. histrioides, which have been around for decades. And lovely things they are. ‘Harmony’, ‘Joyce’, ‘George’, and ‘Cantab’ are just a few that regularly crop up in bulb catalogs.

But you know me–always whoring after novelty. And so the selections I grow are a bit more, shall we say, recherché. I quite like the un-hybridized I. reticulata, and grow a selection called ‘Kuh-e-Abr’. It’s a clear, medium blue, and although the floral segments are a bit narrow, it’s a cheerful, perky plant (qualities I can tolerate much more easily in plants than in people).

Iris reticulata 'Kuh-e-Abr'.

For sheer beauty of color, though, I can’t think of no early iris that surpasses I. histrioides. Its blue is deep and clear, and the flowers have an impressive embonpoint. (Look it up.)

Iris histrioides.

The true novelty in my collection, however, is ‘Deep Blue Sea’. You wouldn’t guess it at first, since it looks like an ordinary, pleasant, blue iris. But it is in fact a fairly unusual hybrid, between the yellow-flowered I. danfordiae and the I. reticulata lookalike I. sophenensis. This is noteworthy because the usual form of I. danfordiae is a sterile triploid, and therefore unusable as a parent. The breeder, Canadian Alan McMurtrie, searched long and hard before he finally found a diploid form that he could incorporate into his breeding program, which has been going on for more than 25 years. (By the way, it takes five years for a new seedling of this kind of iris to bear its first flowers.) The early products of his efforts, like ‘Deep Blue Sea’, were attractive, vigorous plants with few surprises in the way of color. But his more recent efforts, which have involved an unnamed plant known simply as the “Çat species,” are mind-blowing. Among the hundreds of hybrids he shows on his website are flowers in sea green (in fact, one of his selections is named ‘Sea Green’), blue-black, chocolate, cinnamon, chestnut, emerald and yellow, and a violet-navy-turquoise blend that made me feel briefly faint.

Alan McMurtrie's 'Deep Blue Sea' (a bit past its prime, alas).

Evidently, there is at least one Dutch bulb grower who is working to propagate several of McMurtrie’s hybrids, so they should be more widely available in another few years. In the meantime, you can order some of the more unusual color forms from Jānis Rukšāns in Latvia (don’t worry–he ships to the States). They are perhaps the ultimate garden collectible: rare, a bit pricey, and exquisitely beautiful. How can you stand not to have them?