Irises come in all shapes and sizes, from dwarf winter-blooming types to tall ‘bearded’ flowers – once affectionately referred to as ‘flags’ – to graceful Siberian species. They were so popular in the first half of the 20th century that many parents named their daughters after them.
At this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show (May 21-25) expect to see these crowd-pleasers at every turn, with flowers in vivid yellow and darkest black and every shade in between.
On the water’s edge of the Savills and David Harber Show Garden, designed by Andrew Duff, the brightest yellow native irises (Iris pseudacorus), which can grow more than a metre tall, are set to dazzle in the sunshine on Main Avenue.
In the Artisan Gardens, the Donkey Sanctuary design will feature cool blues and lavenders with the eye-catching Iris ‘Langport Wren’ adding a rich, jewel-like purple presence. Designers Christina Williams and Annie Prebensen are helping to celebrate the Devon-based charity’s 50th anniversary, and highlight the role donkeys play in improving the lives of some of the poorest communities across the world.
Iris ‘White Swirl’, surely one of the most elegant irises, in ivory-white with a yellow and green veined heart, will fit perfectly into the calming Family Monsters Garden by Alistair Bayford, while we can be sure Chelsea multi-gold medal winner Kazuyuki Ishihara will place his iris with forensic precision in his Green Switch garden.
To see the bearded irises that Monet immortalised on canvas, head for the Grand Pavilion. His painterly plantsmanship was in part due to the Chelsea multiple medal-winning Cayeux family, who have supplied Giverny, in Normandy, with irises since the 1920s.
Richard Cayeux is a fourth-generation plantsman and his stand The French Touch will showcase iris bred by his family nursery near Sancerre, in the Loire, over the past 120 years. In 2018, Richard received the British Iris Society Hybridiser’s Award for his numerous iris creations.
Richard, 61, said: ‘In 1924, my great-grandfather Victor Cayeux supplied Monet with irises, but after the Second World War Giverny fell into disrepair, and it was only reopened to the public, after restoration, in the 1980s, when our family nursery was invited to re-supply the irises.
‘I still have the original 1924 invoice and some of the varieties listed will be on display at Chelsea, including ‘Peau Rouge’, which was introduced in 1922 and, prior to being supplied to Monet, it had only been sold to the USA. It was extremely rare and very expensive.’
The French Touch actually has a very British heritage because iris grower Sue Marshall will put together the display for Richard.
Richard explained: ‘It is a busy time of year for us at the nursery and transporting the plants is not easy, so Sue grows on the plants for me and creates the display.’
Sue, who runs Iris of Sissinghurst, in Kent, plans to divide the stand into four sections: from 1900-1950, to include ‘Carthage’ and ‘Dame Blanche’ from the original stock; 1960-2000, with favourites ‘Alizes’ and ‘Bal Masqué’; 2001-2010, featuring ‘Eclipse de Mai’, ‘Java Bleue’ and Marie-José Nat’; and from 2011 new names such as ‘Domino Noir’ and ‘Nelly Tardivier’.
Back in France, the youngest of Richard’s three daughters, Sixtine, 26, is now working in the business after an internship in Oregon, USA, with the Schreiner family, the world’s largest iris growers and set to be fifth generation Cayeux to take on the family business.
Sue Marshall’s top tips for growing iris
Iris should be planted from the beginning of July to the end of September
Plant bearded iris in a sunny, well-drained sunny site
Plant with rhizomes on the surface.
Do not overfeed but always feed after flowering
Divide overgrown clumps every 3-4 years in July/August
Find out more about growing bearded irises
Why we love irises
Alan Titchmarsh MBE, gardener and TV presenter
Irises are such a varied race, from the early spring bulbous beauties barely three inches high, to the later spring border perennials that push up through a forest of grassy leaves and the wonderfully gaudy bearded varieties that grow in a sunny border in my garden. Their colour combinations are ridiculously elaborate and I love them!
Roger Platts, RHS Chelsea judge and gold medal winner
I value Iris because of their diversity. There’s a choice for every situation whether baking hot and dry for the Iris germanica or damp, even waterlogged, for Iris sibiricas and shady for iris foetidissima. The pointed upright leaves and strong stems with flowers provide excellent structure combined with seasonal colour – they are perfect for creating textural variation. They add so much to the garden.
Sue Marshall, Iris of Sissinghurst
What’s not to love – and not everyone realises that irises have stunning scented flowers. I feel really privileged to grow new varieties introduced by Cayeux – my favourites include Domino Noir, Petit Tigre, Cigarillo, Santiago Castroviejo and Regard Sombre.
Where and when to see the best irises
The second part of May is usually the peak flowering period for bearded iris.
The Manor at Hemingford Grey, Cambs
A dazzling collection of bearded iris.
Open daily 11am to 5pm (01480 463134; greenknowe.co.uk).
Godinton House and Garden, Ashford, Kent
Fine collection of bearded iris in walled garden.
Open 1pm-6pm until November 1 (01233 643854; godintonhouse.co.uk).
Myddelton House & Gardens, in Lee Valley Regional Park, London
National collection of Dyke’s medal-winning irises.
Open daily, 10am-5pm (08456 770600; visitleevalley.co.uk).
Aulden Farm, Aulden, Leominster, Herefordshire
National collection of Siberian iris.
Open April to September by appointment (01568 720129; auldenfarm.co.uk).
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