HomeHome & GardenBearded beauties: Let irises bring drama, style and elegance to your borders

Bearded beauties: Let irises bring drama, style and elegance to your borders

Bearded beauties: Let irises bring drama, style and elegance to your borders

  • Nigel Colborn says irises are delicate, elegant and gorgeously coloured 
  • The ‘beard’ is like an eyebrow, running down the centre of each lower petal
  • UK-based gardening expert says bearded irises like well-drained soil in sun  

Men and irises have one thing in common, some have beards, others don’t. In every other respect, irises strike me as being feminine.

Named after the Greek rainbow goddess, the flowers are delicate, elegant and gorgeously coloured.

Whether bearded or not, iris flowers have everything in threes. Three upright petals stand above three others which hang in a skirt-like arrangement. The ‘beard’ is more like an eyebrow, running down the centre of each lower petal. It’s there to guide bees to the hidden nectaries.

The beards also come in various colours, some contrasting with The petals. An old white variety Frost and Flame, for example, has orange-red beards on snowwhite petals. The dwarf Gingerbread Man has bronze and buff petals with purple-blue beards.

Showy blooms: Yellow bearded irises contrast with a purple variety

Bearded irises have big, showy flowers. But as with all of their ‘tribe, each bloom is frail and short-lived. Some last just a few days, but each stem has several buds. These unfurl in succession, giving a longer run of colour.

The earliest to flower, in March, are dwarf varieties, developed From low-growing wild species such as Iris attica. Taller varieties, developed from Iris germanica, flower from late spring to late June.


Tall, bearded irises are leading ladies in a spring-to-summer border. Their blues, golds and bronzes harmonise with lupins, poppies and other early flowers.

They also bring colour when later plants are still green. If you blend them with echinaceas, heleniums and other latesummer plants, they’ll provide essential colour from May.

Dwarf varieties, such as blue Austrian Skies, the white Green Spot or lilac and ochre Hocus Pocus, flower from April.

Among taller irises, I love old varieties such as pale blue Jane Phillips and bronze Tall Chief. Those have classic iris shapes. Most modern varieties have frilled petals which can blur the classic fleur de lys outline.

Modern varieties offer a wider colour choice, though. Online nursery crocus.co.uk offers Black Dragon, which has impossibly dark ‘falls’ with deep navy uppers. Edith Wolford has primrose uppers and violet-blue falls. Burgemeister has lilac uppers and reddish mauve falls. English Cottage is a virginal white with just a hint of blue veining. 


Bearded irises like welldrained soil in sun. Add compost annually to improve heavy soils.

When the plants grow large, flowering reduces. Traditionally that was cured by splitting big clumps in August and discarding the aged centres. Outer rhizomes were removed, re-planted and took a year to recover, flowering two years later.

But Antony Jarvis of Doddington Hall, Lincoln, has a new system; lifting bearded irises after flowering. That’s later this month and not August, when disturbance is more damaging.

Each plant is lifted and 50 per cent of each discarded. The remainder is split into divisions whose horizontal root spans are roughly 21x15cm. These new divisions have almost a full year in which to grow. If you already grow bearded irises, try it with a mature plant first. See rhs.org.uk and doddingtonhall.com.

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