Iris: Bearded, Siberian, Louisianan, Japanese, Native — Go See Them

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The 2022 Dykes Memorial medal winner, a bearded German Iris called Sunday Football, entered by Lynda Miller

Tulips, tulips, tulips. Crowds trample each other every year to see tulips in Holland. Why not iris? Do tulips have a better PR company? Iris are blooming now, and through the beginning of June. And, you know, Giverny...

Irises are more complex and stately than tulips, and also dreamier. These days they have also been bred to be as colorful as a Pride parade. A day strolling through an iris garden could be like looking at orchids, except down instead of up. Darn if you aren’t ready to start ordering some to plant in the garden come fall.

For instance, iris are often are scented. One (Iris pallida) smells like grape jelly). Tulips have petals. That’s it. Irises have standards, falls, beards, crests, arms, lips, signals and sometimes horns.

Deer eat tulips. They don’t eat iris. Enough said?

Drama Queen, a lightly scented Dykes Memorial medal winner in 2002 by Kevin Keppel

Just as orchids and roses have passionate breeders, irises have growers who spend years trying to outdo each other with exquisite combinations of ruffles and veins, height, number of flowers on a stem, subtle color combinations, or a wowie eye-full to win the coveted Dykes Memorial Medal. In 1978, the demur Beverly Sills, a ruffled pink, was the winner, and it continues to sell out to this day at retailers like Willow Bend Iris Garden.

In 2002, Keith Keppel won the medal with a lightly scented iris he grew from seed. He called it Drama Queen. Here is his description, lightly edited: Early midseason bloom. Standards near-solid dark blackish cyclamen purple, very faint golden buff ground toward base; style arms blended rose brown and slate purple; Falls cyclamen, golden capucine buff; ground showing as blaze and distinct veining; beards rusty orange, purple mid-layer, white base.

A bearded iris called Hello Darkness, also a medal winner

In Greek mythology, Iris was the goddess of the rainbow. The German bearded iris has, today, conquered every quarter of that rainbow, from snowy white (the combination of all colors through magenta and “capucine” (I believe Kepper meant the flower, not the actress to jumped to her death, or “Capuchin,” the monkeys or the monks) to near black — the iris called “Hello Darkness,” another Dykes medal winner.

A stand of Siberian iris; perhaps in need of a little digging up and separating.

Where to see them.

Any public botanical garden will have irises among their general plantings. At the end of May the New York Botanical Garden can usually be counted on to have a spectacular display of irises. At the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the tall bearded iris bloom in the Shakespeare Garden. Siberian iris are planted in the Conservatory Garden in Central Park, between 104th and 106th Streets on the east side. Blue flag (native) iris will be everywhere in non-tidal wetlands around the city. Many churchyards and small gardens that once had tulips will now have iris.

The Presby Memorial Iris Gardens of Montclair, NJ

Here are 14,000 irises in 3,000 varieties. The Presby Memorial Iris Gardens were founded in memory of Frank Presby, a leading citizen of Montclair and one of the founders of the American Iris Society. Located in Mountainside Park in 1923, over the years a dry creek bed was restored, bridges built, and Japanese and water-loving Louisianan irises located in that area. Bloom season lasts through the first week of June. On street parking. A $10 donation is recommended to help maintain the gardens. Hours and information here.


Hollister House, Washington, CT

Hollister House, in the Litchfield Hills, CT

Here is a classical garden in the English manner, informally planted. The iris should still be still blooming into the beginning of June. Limited schedule of time to visit from Wednesday to Saturday. Artists get Wednesday morning. Wednesday afternoon is for everyone else, 1pm to 4pm. Thursday 5pm to 7pm. Friday 1pm to 4pm. Saturday, 10pm to 4pm, $10 admission, children under 10 free. Check the website for a multitude of garden programs and offers, like the June 3, first Friday $10 glass of wine at sunset stroll through the gardens where the peonies bloom. 300 Nettleton Hollow Rd. Washington, CT 06793.


Schreiner Iris Garden, 3625 Quinaby Rd NE, Salem, OR. This year’s open house runs through May 31; tickets are available online. Schreiner is one of the largest retailers of iris, including Japanese, Louisianan, dwarf and perhaps even blue flag, in the country. (Blue flag iris are native iris that probably grew around in every swamp west of the Mississippi; they have a yellow mark on each fall.) The garden will be open through May 31. Orders, of course, can be made now, and will ship in the fall.

Siberian iris used to be rather plain and single color with one contrast on the falls. Look what they’ve done to them now.

Mount Pleasant Iris Farm will be open for visits until mid July. The farm, in Washougal, Washington, is also the site of a National Display Garden of Japanese iris, Iris ensata. Chad Harris has been growing and hybridizing Japanese iris, Hanashobu, for 40 years. Recently, he has been working with a closely related iris, Iris laevigata (Kakitsubata in Japan), the true water iris of Asia, and a new species-cross hybrid involving Iris ensata called “Pseudata”. These plants of the iris family are very well suited to growing near water, some in the water as pond plants, in rain gardens, as well as patio containers. The website is comprehensive, in case you can’t make it to Washington State.

Louisianan Black Gamecock iris


The Historic Iris Preservation Society has a tradition of digging, selling and trading in July. If you grow irises, you know they have to be dug up, separated and moved every once in a while. They multiply. They grow over each other. They actually lift themselves out of the ground. Something must be done.

Thus, from July 12 until midnight July 15, members of the Historic Iris Preservation Society (and you) can go to their website and bid on lots of freshly dug rhizomes. You, if you are not a member of HIPS, however, only get one day, July 14 to July 15. But what fun! Keep this website in your electronic file, and remember that it will cost $40 to get a set of six fans of some devoted fancier’s favorite irises. I’m sure with photos and descriptions. Fell like an iris fancier yet?

Linda Lee is a former editor and writer at The New York Times.