Growbag Blog

We’re flying the flag for iris!

Woo-hoo! We’re in Chelsea Flower Show month! The show simply couldn’t be better-timed to see irises at their best, so this week we’re reprising a post devoted to these marvellous plants. We hope you enjoy it!

With so many different ones to choose from, which iris would be best for your garden? Well it depends which Growbag you consult…

Elaine is in full-on ‘English bearded’ mode, it’s go large or go home as far as she’s concerned. For the more botanically curious and patient amongst us (and she would say that this immediately rules out her two sisters) Laura has a more intricate alternative for you to experiment with, whilst Caroline’s question of ‘so there are different types of iris then?’ doesn’t bode well for her contribution this week……


Yes, I’m for the great big bearded irises that light up May and June borders with an elegance of form and colour that is hard to find in any other flower (just LOOK at our feature picture this week – Iris ‘Benton Lorna’ !)

The range of colours available is frankly crazy. I do adore all the subtle sultry amber and brown shades – colours that might be very indicative of deadness in lots of other plants! I think it works with irises because the petals are thin and translucent and the sunlight shines through them. The petals thus glow like rubies and bronzes and precious metals instead of the matt uniformity of dead plant material. 

Iris ‘Benton Caramel’
The tawny colours of Iris ‘Benton Caramel’ seem to glow from within

That gives you a clue as to how to grow tall bearded irises too – they like things hot and sunny and will flower much better if their corms get a good summer baking (I know the feeling!)

Ah, but then there is the glorious sky-blue of Iris ‘Jane Phillips’. There are so few true-blue flowers, almost all of the so-called blue flowers have a touch of violet about them – this big iris is the real deal. 

Iris ‘Jane Phillips’
Peerless ‘Jane Phillips’

There is one iris that isn’t a whopper, but I do love it for its early flowering, it’s neat ‘stakes-are-for-sissies’ height, and its dark, almost obsidian flowers: it’s I. ‘Langport Wren’, and even the esteemed garden writer Stephen Lacey has called it ‘outstanding’ in his lovely book ‘Real Gardening’.

Iris ‘Langport Wren’
‘Langport Wren’ – the connoisseur’s choice

Gorgeous bearded irises always remind me of the fabulous Chelsea Flower Show sell-off days with my sisters and friends. Cayeux and Kelways are among the companies that display their heartbreakingly lovely irises for sale, and between us we always fall for a few. 

Chelsea sell off
Well we were never going to get this lot home without some collateral damage …

By the time the plants have been carted back to Victoria Station, had a reviving drinky-poos at the station bar (oh sorry, that’s us, not them), and made an arduous journey home by train and dodgy carrier bag, there is barely a bud left, let alone a flower. No matter. It is all worth it for the sumptuous loveliness of its flowers the following year quietly suffused with hilariously happy memories.

Iris ‘Broadway Star’
Iris ‘Broadway Star’ – none the worse for its torrid journey home from Chelsea Flower Show in years gone by.


Yes well Point 1: it’s usually Elaine’s long suffering friends who have to lug home the products of her endless overindulgence in her Chelsea shopping sprees. Point 2: Bearded iris may have terrific presence in a garden, but originating from Mediterranean countries means they also hog a lot of your premium sunny sites. Elaine’s gardening ideals are based on grandiose gardens like Sissinghurst and Hidcote, whereas my dream garden has always been the walled garden on the remote Isle of Jura in the Hebrides, where you happen upon little botanical gems tucked into shady corners and crevices and is where I first came across the Pacific Coast irises.

Jura walled garden
I prefer the quaint curiosities of Jura walled garden over the set piece designs of grander gardens

Coming from damp woodlands on the west coast of California this group of smaller iris actually thrive in cramped shaded spots in the garden, under trees or hedges, beside a path or in an awkward corner, and flower at the same time as their much beefier cousins, but in a range of beautiful pastel colours with delicate veining and mottling.

Iris innominata
Make a note in your diary to buy Iris innominata from Plant World Seeds this autumn

They actually consist of a group of about 10 different species, and you occasionally see one of them, Iris innominata for sale in specialist nurseries, or as seed, but there are now so many crosses between the different species that they usually go under the general name of ‘Pacific Coast Hybrids’.

They don’t transplant very well as mature specimens so the best way to obtain them is from seed. Put a note in your diary now to order a packet in September when the seed should have been freshly collected from this summer’s crop of flowers, (Thompson and Morgan are a good bet) and then sow straight away either in pots or directly in situ, two or three seeds in each likely spot in your garden and just see what comes up. You’ll get some delightful surprises, as I did when one of my little fledglings turned into the charming little clump in the picture below.

Pacific Coast hybrid
Seed sown Pacific Coast hybrid iris is like a box of chocolates you never know what you’re going to get …


All very exciting I’m sure but as my friend Janice says, why grow something that looks, at its brief best, like a burst balloon? Plus, anything that needs its rhizomes ‘baked’ doesn’t really have a future here in the Scottish Highlands.

I admit irises do have their strong points. Their slightly funky, off-set stems are actually very attractive and don’t be surprised if Farrow and Ball name a paint after their enchanting grey/green hue (they could name it ‘Caroline’s brilliant Iris idea’ if they wanted – just a thought).

But I’m not sure Elaine’s Benton heavyweights would really settle down in the Far North. My iris experience today begins and ends thus:

1. Iris sibirica the clue’s in the name. If these guys can handle Siberia they’ve definitely got what it takes for Inverness. They pop up dependably every year looking slightly dazed and spindly but game enough. And look at the detail in those petals. It was one classy balloon!

Iris sibirica – how can something this tough be so blooming attractive?

2. Flags – a swamp-loving iris in blue or, more commonly here, yellow. Like a giant panda at the zoo, they’re a fleeting sight but one of those free loch-side features that so frequently makes a Highland landscape an Instagrammer’s paradise.

Iris pseudacorus
Yellow flag iris, or as Laura would call it, Iris pseudacorus, an instagrammer’s dream

NB Louise’s plant of the moment is a hardy British native – a must for your garden AND your kitchen! Know what it is? Find out if you’re right by clicking on the box below

More NB If you’d like a bit more gardening chitchat from the3growbags, please type your email address here and we’ll send you a new post every Saturday morning.

By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

9 replies on “We’re flying the flag for iris!”

I love bearded irises! I have a very small garden but, having liberated some rhisomes from a demolition site 48 years ago, most of my sunny spots are full of tall beautiful deep purple and violet exotic flowers for a short glorious May display. After they finish I sprinkle a mix of love in the mist, cornflowers and poppy seeds in the gaps so there’s always something to take advantage of the sunny spots for the rest of the summer. No idea what iris she is but she now flowers in gardens of friends and family all over Somerset.

My Irises were liberated from a redevelopment site in Wiltshire! I’ve no idea what variety they are but they’re enjoying life in Northumberland and have also been passed around friends!

These irises get around obviously! Nothing nicer than getting plants from other people – especially ones that live for years and years – wonderful mementoes of friendships. It’s Caroline here and mine were actually divided by Laura so they relocated from Sussex to the Highlands. Probably not quite as happy as yours in Northumberland – a truly lovely county – you lucky thing!

There is a whole different level of pleasure attached to plants that have you’ve rescued isn’t there! So annoying that these message responses don’t enable you to attach photos, it would be fab to see them.
It’s a great idea to sprinkle some seeds like that – a tip that Laura should heed as I think she just considers irises a short-lived pleasure and lives with the gap thereafter. Thank you Susan!

A great read ladies, gardening knowledge with a smile. Love it.
And what a good idea from Susan Church.

Thank you so much Helen. It’s Caroline here and Laura wasn’t kidding. I had no idea there were different types of irises. I sometimes think I learn more than anyone from our blog! Lovely to get your comment X

My mom had bearded iris in her garden many,many decades ago, and I have a great love for them. I met Lucy Skellhorn at a plant fair and have obtained a few of Cedric Morris ones (LOVE Benton Olive and Menace). I also have some Foster Irises, too. Love the historical ones but most of mine, however, are intermediate instead of tall – too windy here in the fens. Many were obtained from the French Company, Caueux before I found UK sellers. I am lucky to have an iris specialist locally (Seagate) and I will be making a trip to them to their growing iris and also go to Manor at Hemingford Grey and Doddington Hall to see theirs in all their glory.

Hi Lisa, thank you for writing in. Elaine here, and you definitely sound like someone who really knows their irises! I do adore them, and in my sheltered south coast garden I can give way to grow the tall kinds, as well as the sibiricas and shorter species ones which is a bonus. My only regret is that the flowers die in such ugly and public way – but I suppose they have to have some faults…..!The Cayeux stand at the Chelsea Flower Show was always a MUST-SEE for us 3Growbags – so many perfect blooms in such nuance’d colours. Incredible to think they the Cayeux family have been supplying irises since the 19th century. I’m glad that you have managed to find a supplier much more locally, though. I looked up the two Benton irises that you mention – both gorgeous, and I love it that the rich purply-violet one called Menace’ was named after one of Cedric’s cats! I think I know where Cedric was coming from on that one……………….Hope you continue to enjoy this glorious iris season – mine have certainly revelled in the baking they got last summer, so I hope yours have as well.

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