Irises – the shooting stars that herald summer

Sissinghurst Irises- May 2013

The month of May is an exuberant time in any garden with plants exploding into growth all around us but at Sissinghurst, the most spectacular plants that flower in May are the irises. Some visitors love June because the roses are at their best but I love May because, to me, irises herald the beginning of summer, shooting upwards with such enthusiasm like sprinters coming off their blocks. Yes, it’s true their beauty is fleeting and they certainly don’t flower all summer but who cares? Irises are the shooting stars of the plant world, lighting up the garden for one spectacular moment and when they flower, we should all stop and stare for a while.

Irises Sissinghurst style 2012

Irises Sissinghurst style 2012

Vita and Harold loved irises too, a love that first developed at Longbarn, the home they owned from 1915 -1930. At Sissinghurst, they continued to use them extensively especially in the Rose Garden, collecting many new and beautiful cultivars. We now consider these irises to be ‘heritage’ varieties but in the 1930’s and 40’s they were original and exciting. Many classic cultivars were created both in Britain and the US during this time and Vita loved them! In 1949, she wrote “not everyone, I think, has yet realized the extreme beauty of the Irises……Their beauty is beyond dispute. No velvet can rival the richness of their falls; or, let us say, it is to velvet only that we may compare them. That is surely enough to claim for any flower?” Vita was referring to the lovely varieties that were now available to gardeners such as ‘Black Douglas’ bred by J Sass in 1939, ‘Melchior’ bred in 1927 and ‘Beotie’ bred in 1932 by Cayeux, all of which are grown in the garden as well as many others. But to list them all would be impossible and everyone has their own favourite. So to give you a taste, here are the favourites of all the Head Gardeners both past and present…..

Sibylle Kreutzberger, Head Gardener 1959-1990: Iris ‘Braithwaite’. A tall, bearded bi-colour iris, bred in 1952, with very pale lavender-blue standards (the upright petals) and dark purple falls (the downward petals). Sibylle likes it for its clarity of colour.

Iris Braithwaite

Iris ‘Braithwait’

Pam Schwerdt, Head Gardener 1959-1990: Iris ‘Langport Flash’. An intermediate bearded iris, bred in the 1950’s by Kelways and sons. The falls and standards are a pale cream highlighted with delicate green-brown veins that creep down the petals. It was grown in the Cottage Garden and we are hoping to re-instate it soon. Pam liked it for its form and elegance.

Sarah Cook, Head Gardener 1990-2004: Iris ‘Benton Nigel’. Bred by the artist Cedric Morris who was a friend of Vita’s and Harold’s. Sarah likes it because when she arrived at Sissinghurst in January 1984, it reminded her of home in Suffolk. Benton End was Cedric Morris’s home and was close to where Sarah lived with her parents. During the 1950’s he regularly opened his garden to the public and Sarah remembers attending these events with her mum who helped serve tea there in aid of the Red Cross. Cedric Morris was a keen breeder of irises and created many new and beautiful cultivars which Sarah is now collecting. Iris ‘Benton Nigel’ has beautiful deep lavender standards with dark purple falls edged, like a halo, with lavender.

Alexis Datta, Head Gardener 2004-April 2013: Iris ‘Three Oaks’. A beautiful iris, strangely exotic, like a bird of paradise. Colours of rose, purple and gold mix together to form a perfect package. Lex says “It is beautiful with lovely colours and an old-fashioned quality that is hard to beat.”

Iris Three Oaks

Iris ‘Three Oaks’

Wendy Tremenheere, Ass. Head Gardener: Iris ‘Argus Pheasant’. An old cultivar bred in 1948. Wendy likes it because the flowers are a dark bronze which complement perfectly the bright yellow, orange and red flowers grown in the Cottage Garden.

Troy Smith, Head Gardener May 2013: Iris Beotie. Troy describes this as “A lovely iris of a most unusual colour. I first came across this in a lovely combination at Sissinghurst. It was with Camassia leichtlinii alba group, Paris polyphylla and Geranium pratense plenum caeruleum and looked just sublime.”

Iris Beotie

Iris ‘Beotie’

And my favourite is Iris ‘Shannopin’. It reminds me of vanilla ice-cream and raspberries but I like it most because of the story of the man who bred it. Contrary to the popular image of plant breeders being dedicated horticulturists fussing around their plants, ‘Shannopin’ was created in 1940 by an American called T. Lloyd Pillow, who worked in Pittsburgh as the superintendent of the city’s Street and Sewers Department. Perhaps as an antidote to his day job, he chose to occupy himself during his free time with the more gentle art of plant breeding. He created three irises that were sold commercially with ‘Shannopin’ being the most successful, which he named after the Delaware chief whose village used to stand on the same site as modern day Pittsburgh. I think Mr Pillow would be quite satisfied to know that his iris had made it to the other side of the Atlantic and was growing happily in the garden of Vita Sackville-West in the 21st century.

Iris Shannopin

Iris ‘Shannopin’

The irises are just beginning to flower now and we would love you to visit and enjoy them. Perhaps you will be able to choose your favourite or will you, like Vita, love them all?

Happy gardening,

Helen, Gardener

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