“I think I prefer the sibiricans now to the bearded irises. Much easier care.” So spake a friend who will, for unrelated reasons, always be known as Cemetery Sue here, as we stood looking at my swathes of Iris sibirica in the new borders. In the second year since planting, their display has been fantastic.
I only had three different varieties and they are just one of those good performing, utility plants that I took for granted before. Sue has since brought me a fourth one sourced from the inimitable Bill Robinson (yes, he and Anne are still gardening and growing plants in Tikitere, near Rotorua). Now I wouldn’t mind a few more.
Iris sibirica, or the Siberian iris, is very hardy, undemanding – so low maintenance – and fully deciduous which means that it emerges afresh each spring. I had assumed it came from Siberia, and it does grow there but its natural distribution is from northern and central Europe right across to Central Asia (which includes Siberia). In the wild, it is a damp woodland plant, preferring full sun to part shade. Presumably, woodlands in that part of the world are largely deciduous. The received wisdom here has always been that they grow well in heavy soils and are ideal beside ponds and waterways, though they do not grow IN the water but BESIDE it. In Taranaki open gardens, they are usually combined with the bright yellow Primula helodoxa because both grow in similar conditions and flower at the same time, conveniently at the peak garden visitor period.
I wasn’t sure how they would go en masse in my new sunny borders which don’t have particularly heavy soils, though we get spring and summer rains during their growing season. The answer is that they are sensational, growing larger and stronger than I anticipated in the freshly cultivated soil. The erect foliage is between waist and chest height and the flowers held above that. They have taken my breath away. Even the white and yellow form with tissue paper thin petals (it may or may not be ‘White Swirl’ or ‘Snow Queen’) which I had thought a little insipid where I had it planted previously, was terrific in early spring. We have the dark ‘Caesar’s Brother’ (who doesn’t?) but it was the other blue that is the real showstopper with its much larger flower, longer season and free flowering ways. I wondered if I could put a name on it and that took me down a rabbit hole on the internet. I had no idea there was so much passion for the sibiricans.
It turns out that this iris has been crossed extensively – very extensively – with others in the iris series Sibiricae – which is one step up the iris family tree from the species I. sibirica. You can tell by the cultivar names that the breeders of this genus are passionate about their subject matter and quite possibly American. I say that because after looking at the photos on line, I wonder if our large blue variety is ‘Blue Moon’ or maybe (wait for it) ‘Over in Gloryland’. Mark is hoping for the latter.
The new yellow that Sue brought me from Bill Robinson still had a flower on it and is very pretty. Bill had lost the name but, like the other three, it will be a named clone. I wonder if it is ‘Butter and Sugar’ or ‘Dreaming Yellow’. My guess is that ‘Caesar’s Brother’ and the white one I have are both species selections, so pure Iris sibirica while the larger flowered mid blue and new yellow are named hybrids from a breeding programme. It appears that the sibirican hybrids are not unlike the so—called Dutch irises and indeed the Japanese Higo irises in their complex breeding lines which have mixed up the genetics so much that the debt to the original species is quite distant. Before any readers get all purist, yes it is important to keep the world’s gene reserves going and not to lose the original species, but the hybrid vigour that comes from mixing up the original genes is often what gives us better performing, more reliable garden plants.
Our Higo iris season is just starting and that is a time of special delight.