The Historic Irises of Sissinghurst

Those you who read our blog regularly will know that I love irises and have written about them in previous years. ( Irises at Sissinghurst are almost as integral to the garden as roses and it will come as no surprise that it was Harold and Vita who, having fallen in love with them at Longbarn, subsequently introduced them to the garden at Sissinghurst.

The first half of the twentieth century was an exciting time for iris breeders, with many new cultivars of bearded irises being bred and introduced to the public. We are fortunate that Vita, being a fan, bought many of these and in doing so left a legacy that we can still enjoy today. These irises had an elegance and simplicity of form that is perhaps not so obvious in today’s new irises, with their frills and ruffles, and our collection at Sissinghurst reflects this period. Vita and Harold collected irises from all the well-known iris breeders of the day. Thus we have irises such as ‘Black Douglas’, ‘Melchior’, ‘Shannopin’, ‘Black Taffeta’, ‘Blue Boy’, ‘Amethyst Flame’ and ‘Lothario’ from America,

Iris ‘Beotie’ from the famous iris breeders, Cayeux, in France and of course, many from the British breeders. It was a particularly good time for irises in the UK with great progress being made by iris breeders such as William Dykes, Arthur Bliss, Cedric Morris and Hilda Murrell. We have examples of some of their irises in the garden such as ‘White City’ and ‘Cleo Murrell’ both bred at the Orpington Nurseries by Hilda Murrell and Iris ‘Crathie’ bred by Cedric Morris. In total we have a collection of about one hundred irises of all types in the garden.

But at this point the story takes a downward turn. We know from Vita’s notes made in 1948 that more were grown in the garden and over time they have been lost and not replaced. We have a list of at least 12 irises that were once grown at Sissinghurst and it is our goal to find them and bring them back to the garden. The realisation that historic plant collections can diminish without anyone even realising it (even in a historic garden) is a sobering thought. Iris collectors such as Sarah Cook, former Head Gardener at Sissinghurst, (who is currently showing her collection of Cedric Morris irises at Chelsea) and Anne Milner who holds the national collection of Arthur Bliss irises have done a great deal to find and restore these lost cultivars but they know all too well the difficulty of accurately identifying irises once they are no longer commercially propagated. Many historic irises are probably languishing in back gardens all over the country and many will never be found nor identified.

So where does that leave us in our quest to find Vita’s lost irises? It’s not necessarily a hopeless situation and we have various leads to follow up. Kelways is still a great iris nursery and having bred Iris ‘Langport Flash’ may be able to locate a plant for us. Sarah Cook has kindly offered to supply ‘Benton Nigel’ again to the garden and it’s possible that Anne Milner may be able to supply ‘Senlac’. As for the others, it will be a case of trying to find any that are still available commercially or asking the British Iris Society to help. Many of the American bred irises may still be available in the US and that will bring its own problems. The irises that we are looking for are ‘Shah Jehan’, ‘Lagos’, ‘Natal’, ‘Oliver’, ‘Quaker Lady’, ‘Ambassador (could be ‘Ambassadeur’), ‘St Crispin’, ‘Lilias’, ‘Warwick’, ‘Senlac’, ‘Langport Flash’ and ‘Benton Nigel’. If you do happen to know where we might locate them, please do contact us.

Iris 'Benton Nigel' on show at Chelsea this year.

Iris ‘Benton Nigel’ on show at Chelsea this year.

Finally, having lost these irises has taught us an important lesson in protecting them, and now that we have more space in our nursery, we intend to have a whole bed dedicated to them.

This will allow us the opportunity to have proper stock of all of those we grow in the garden, bulking up those irises such as ‘Blue Shimmer’ that are not thriving, as well as trying out some different old cultivars that may look good in the main garden. With this additional space we can play our part safe-guarding our collection for the future and in doing so ensure that they remain available for future generations to enjoy.

Helen Champion