The Perfect Perennial? Bearded Iris

April 28, 2016 | By | Comments (6)
Heirloom yellow iris and 'Nearly Wild' rose in Grumpy's yard. Photo: Steve Bender

Heirloom yellow iris and ‘Nearly Wild’ rose in Grumpy’s yard. Photo: Steve Bender

How hard is it to find a perennial that takes hellish heat, bitter cold, plus withering drought and STILL produces powerfully fragrant flowers in a rainbow of colors every spring for the rest of your life? Not hard at all, really. Just ask for bearded iris.

Bearded irises don’t grow from bulbs (a popular misconception), but from large fleshy roots called rhizomes. In days gone by, gardeners often called them “German irises,” despite the fact that they’re not native to Germany, but the Mediterranean region. Modern selections are so heavily hybridized there’s no telling where the genes came from, so we just call them “bearded irises” and leave it at that.

Bearded irises get their common name from their flowers, which consist of upright petals called “standards,” pendant petals called “falls,” and fuzzy, caterpillar-like “beards” that rest atop the falls. Standards and falls may be the same color or radically different colors. Dream up any color combination and you can probably find it. Flower spikes stand anywhere from 2 to 4 feet tall and are great for cutting. Cut a flower stalk in bud, place it in a vase with water, and watch the flowers unfurl one-by-one, filling a room with sweet perfume. When Grumpy was a wee lad, my mother told me irises were her favorite flowers. It didn’t hurt that her older sister was named Iris.

What do you need to grow bearded irises? Two things: sun and well-drained soil. During my recent ambassadorial trip to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco (the location can now be revealed), I witnessed purple bearded irises blooming everywhere. Here’s a shot from the gardens at our guest house in Imlil.

Iris at our guest house in Morocco. Photo: Steve Bender

Iris at our guest house in Morocco. Photo: Steve Bender

Morocco is an arid country with very hot summers, cold winters, gritty soil, little rain, and sunny skies 345 days a year. If bearded iris thrive there, they’ll thrive for you. Like I said, all they need is sun and well-drained soil. In the U.S., they’ll flourish all the way from the Upper Midwest (USDA Zone 3) to the Gulf Coast (USDA Zone 8B). It’s vital not to plant the rhizomes too deeply. The top of the rhizome (the surface without roots) should be even with the soil surface. Don’t mulch.

Where can you get bearded irises? Well, most garden centers have pots of them in stock now. If you want an extra-special kind, you can order online from Schreiner’s Iris Gardens. Or you can beg a friend or neighbor with beautiful irises to give you one.

Irises make great passalong plants, because they’re easily divided in late summer and fall. All you have to do is use a garden fork to lift a clump from the ground, cut the rhizome into sections so that each has roots on the bottom and a fan of leaves on the top, and replant. That’s how Grumpy obtained the lovely yellow iris pictured above. It was a gift received from Margaret Sanders of Columbus, Mississippi years ago. It’s blooming as we speak.





  1. Cathy Egerer

    Steve, thank you for sharing the photos of your lovely yellow iris. These heirloom irises are super tough – guess hat’s why they’re still around. Anyone who is interested in historic irises, you’re invited to visit our website at and browse through our Gallery. We have a rhizome sale coming up in July where you can purchase heirloom irises for your own yard. Planting irises that match the age of the house is becoming more popular, as is the creation of iris beds that match the birth years of family members, or have a theme based on the name of the iris, since they are named by the breeder when registered. Storybook names, music names, special place names, etc. have all been used in theme beds. It’s hard to go wrong with irises! – Cathy Egerer, Historic Iris Preservation Society (A section of the American Iris Society)

    May 4, 2016 at 10:34 am
  2. Mark Or Kim Shipp

    The irises in the wet place could be Louisianas, but if they multiply like crazy, have long, strappy, dark green leaves, and most commonly, yellow “floppy” blooms, they are likely the pseudacorus irises, which are banned in some places (I understand) and are considered invasive. They dry up a slough quickly, and have been used in my area – in years past – for the open evaporation ponds in certain types of septic systems, the way elephant ears have been used. Kathy, the most likely reason your irises aren’t blooming is lack of sun, or maybe you’re giving them too much nitrogen. Try moving the clump to a different spot, preferably with more sun, and not putting any kind of fertilizer on them. Also, as noted in Steve’s article, leave the rhizomes exposed on top so they can bake in the sun. Visit the American Iris Society website for more info: – Mark Shipp, Central Arkansas Iris Society

    April 28, 2016 at 11:22 pm
  3. Kathleen

    I’ve always heard them called German Iris, too. I also was taught that when you plant them, a little bit of the rhizome should be left showing above ground, like a duck floating on the water.

    April 28, 2016 at 4:06 pm
  4. Julie curtis

    Kathy Parker how long have you had them?

    April 28, 2016 at 10:43 am
  5. Julie curtis

    I have some irises that are in a wet place with terrible drainage. Anyone know what variety they are? I was told Louisiana irises. I started with one or two plants about 15 years ago, and now the bed is about 12′ x 4′.

    April 28, 2016 at 10:42 am
  6. Kathy Parker

    My irises that a friend gave me have just multiplied greatly but…….never a bloom — what is wrong?

    April 28, 2016 at 10:16 am

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