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Bearded Iris Selection

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One of the most fascinating spring-flowering herbaceous perennials is the Properly Bearded Iris. With its rich palette of colors and shades, divided into groups according to blooming time and height, it has become not just a decoration of gardens, but a subject of pride for many collectors. Its selection has a rich history and includes tens of thousands of registered varieties and unknown to the general public cultivars. But despite the diversity, the breeding work does not stop, perhaps because crossing Iris gives sometimes the most surprising results and yet is not considered difficult.

Bearded iris selection
Low-growing Bearded Iris 'Enchanted Mocha'. © Eric Hunt

Classification of Iris bearded

Iris bearded has a rather complex hybrid origin. Its ancestors are different natural species: German iris, dwarf iris, Trojan iris, Cyprian iris, pale iris, etc. That's why it has so many forms and varieties. And for this reason, it still has no single, globally recognized classification.

The simplest classification of the bearded iris is the division by height. The low-growth group includes plants up to 40 cm in height. The medium-growth group includes plants up to 70 cm. All varieties above 70 cm are considered high-growing.

Dwarf irises are divided into miniature with up to 20 cm tall flower stalks and one to three flowers on it, and standard - with a stem height from 21 to 40 cm and two to four flowers. © NYBG

The medium-grown bearded irises are divided into 4-flowered (IB - intermediate bearded), those with more than 6 flowers on one flower stalk (BB - boarder bearded), and the so-called miniature (MTB - miniature tall bearded).

The group of high-grown ones is not divided into subgroups.

The classification adopted by the Russian Iris Society (ROS) divides Properly Bearded irises into:

  • High Bearded (TV - Tall Bearded);
  • Standard Median Bearded (SMB - Standard Median Bearder);
  • Small-Flowered Median Bearded (SFMB - Small-Flowered Median Bearder);
  • Binding Median Bearded (IMB - Intermediate Median Bearder);
  • Standard Dwarf Bearder (SDB - Standard Dwarf Bearder);
  • Miniature Dwarf Bearder (MDB - Miniature dwarf Bearder);
  • Non-Aril-like Arilberds ((-) AB - Non-Aril - like Arilbreds);
  • Arils and Aril-like Arilberds (AR& (+)AB (Arils and Aril-like Arilbreds)

Bearded irises come in bloom:

  • very early (V - very early),
  • early (E - early),
  • medium early (ME - medium -early),
  • medium late (ML - medium-late),
  • late (L - late),
  • very late (VL - very late).

There are also varieties with recurrent (two or more) flowering (Re - Rebloomers), but in the conditions of the majority of our climatic zones, unfortunately, in the vast majority of cases their remontant is not shown, so in Russian there is almost no data on them.

Bearded iris selection
Classification of bearded irises

Irises are also divided by flower size:

  • with small flowers,
  • with medium,
  • with large,
  • with very large.

There is also classification according to color of foliage and standards:

  • single-colored irises (self) - differ by the same color of all perianth lobes;
  • bicolored (bitone) - have two shades of one color, one of which is painted in the upper lobe, another - in the lower one;
  • bicolor (bicolor) - have two different colors.

The following groups are distinguished among the latter:

  • amena (amoena) - with white upper petals;
  • variegate (variegate)- with yellow upper and dark red lower ones;
  • plicata - with anthocyanic (pink-lilac to dark purple) patterns on the light surface of the perianth lobes;
  • luminata - with the uncolored part around the beard on the anthocyanic background of the lobes;
  • plicata-luminata or fensi-plicata (plicata + luminata)- combination of plicata and luminata indicators;
  • glaciate - pastel shades with absence of anthocyanin elements;
  • blend - with smooth transitions from one color to another;
  • reversion - standards darker than foul;
  • with "broken" color (brokencolours) - with specks of contrasting color on a monochromatic background.

Bearded iris selection

Owing to people's love to this wonderful perennial, over a hundred of its new varieties are born every year. The most saturated group, and the most popular, are the Tall Bearded Irises. The variety of forms of their flowers, the combination of colors just amazes. But despite this, breeders continue to work, surprising the world with new wonderful achievements.

How to breed a new variety?

Breeding a new variety of Bearded iris is possible even for a novice amateur gardener. It requires a little patience, some knowledge and determination.

The first thing to start the work on breeding is to study the structure of the flower.

Bearded iris selection
The structure of the flower of bearded iris. 1 - inner (upper) petals (perianth lobes), standards; 2 - supraorbital ridge; 3 - stigma; 4 - anther; 5 - beard; 6 - outer (lower) petals (perianth lobes), foul; 7 - ovary; 8 - wrapping leaf. © flowers-zemlja

The perianth lobes are the "petals" of the iris flower. Among them, we distinguish between outer lobes - foliage (lower petals) and inner lobes - standards (upper petals). The pistil is a band of richly colored bristles that runs along the upper part of the foliage. Pistil has three lobes and a suprafoliate ridge. Stamens - hidden under the standards and pistil.


If everything is clear with the structure of the flower, you can proceed to crossing.

Step 1 - preparation

First of all, you must decide: what you will cross. Mark out with a label the mother plant (which will be pollinated) and the father plant (from which pollen will be taken). (It is better to place a label with the marking under the ovary, so that it is not lost after the flower fades.)

Unfortunately or maybe fortunately it is almost impossible to predict the result in advance, but in any case the best specimens with clearly expressed characteristics of interest shall be taken for the crossing.

In general, the breeder shall be interested in the shape of a flower, its color, number of buds, time and duration of flowering, character of branching, strength of the variety spreading. The amateur is usually quite interested in the very fact of crossing, and therefore it is possible to start with a simple one - to try to get a variety of color foul and standard, or to mix tall and dwarf hybrids in order to get a transitional or cohesive medium-growing form.

If selection work is planned to be continued, it is better to have a separate record book at once and to fix in it a list of crosses and seedlings selected for further experiments, giving them numbers and letter designations taking into account year of crossing, number of pair, number of seedling

Iris 'Little Annie'. © C&J Design

Step 2 - Pollination

In the morning hours, when the plants have already dried up, or in the evening, always in dry, windless weather from the paternal iris, carefully cut off the anther with scissors. Using a brush, carefully transfer pollen to the open stigma of the mother flower.

Some important points:

The mother flower is ready for pollination already at the end of the first day of flowering, when its stigma bends (opens). Pollen in the unfolded flower ripens first, and then, after 16 or even 20 hours, pollen matures.

In too hot a day, the stigma dries out and cannot receive pollen. Therefore it is recommended to pollinate at the beginning or end of the day, but taking into account that it will not rain in the next two hours.

Pollen collected on the first day of flowering is considered the most viable.

If the perianth lobes are corrugated, for easy access to the stigmas, the standards and pollen foles can be snipped from them.

Folves and anthers are also snipped to save the flower from insect pollination.

In order to increase the percentage of the bolls set, it is better to pollinate three stigmas rather than one.

If pollination occurred - the boll will begin to grow, if not - the flower will flower and fall off.

If the mother plant for some reason not ready for pollination or not next to the father plant, anther can be stored until the right time in a glass container, at room temperature. But it can be stored for no more than eight days.

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Bearded iris selection
Low-growing bearded iris. © Marcie Sullivan Dietrich

Step 3 - Seed Maturation

Now wait for the capsules to mature (about two months). They should turn yellow-green. But do not keep them too long on the plant, because if the bolls burst, the seeds will scatter. In addition, it has been noted that seeds collected from unripe bolls germinate better.

One boll may contain from one to 60 seeds if it is a tall bearded iris, and over 100 in dwarf varieties. At first they have a smooth surface and a honey-brown hue, but as they dry out, they shrink and shrink by half

Step 4 - Sowing Seeds

Sow the seeds either immediately after collection or in winter. Sow well on the scheme 10 X 10 cm, deepening the seeds to a depth equal to about three of their diameters, but not deeper than 1.5 cm.

If the number of seeds is large, it is convenient to divide the area into four-row beds with a distance of 30 cm between the rows and between the seeds 20-25 cm. The soil for seedlings should be water- and air-permeable, not acidic.

In unfavorable weather conditions, you can also grow irises through seedlings. In this case, the dried seeds should be placed in marked bags and stored until February. In February, sow them in pots, in previously disinfected soil. At the bottom of the pots, to preserve moisture, you can put a small amount of hydrogel.

To stimulate the seeds to germinate, you need to keep them in the cold for some time. For this purpose, the container with seedlings is covered with clingfilm and placed in a cool place at around +2 ... 5°C for a month and a half or two months, e.g. in the fridge. Then put them on a warm, well-lit windowsill, or better yet, in a mini greenhouse and wait for sprouts. When it gets warmer, seedlings are planted outdoors.

Important rule

For seeds to germinate successfully - the soil in the pots or on the bed should always be moist. Drying out even for a day strongly suspends the process of germination of seeds. But even when all the conditions are correct, you still have to wait at least eight weeks for the seed to germinate, except for plicate hybrids, which only start to emerge in the seventh week after sowing. And the process of germination itself is extremely uneven - so you need to have patience.

Bearded iris selection
Sprouts of bearded iris planted with seeds. © chrissyboi

Step 5 - flowering

The last stage is flowering. But it will have to wait. Fully developed plants begin to flower only in the second or third year. You have to give the irises at least two years to flower, because only in the second or third year of blossoming can you tell if the result is anything interesting or not.

Step 6 - Registration

If the resulting cultivar is unique, you can register it! This has to be done through the Russian Iris Society (ROI). But when making an application, you will have to fill out a special form in which to note various aspects concerning the new variety, so the application form is better to print in advance, even before flowering and fill it gradually, rather than from memory.

Bearded iris selection
Iris 'Abbey Chant' (Iris 'Abbey Chant'). © Metcalfe Plants

Interesting Facts

Festivals, international competitions and exhibitions of bearded iris are held annually in different countries. The oldest of them is the competition held in Florence, called 'Concorso Internazionale dell'Iris', which begins in 1957.

Australia, America and Great Britain every season give a special award to the most interesting new variety of bearded iris in its class - the Dykes Memorial Medal, which sounds like the 'Dykes Medal' in Russian. This award has been given since 1927.

The majority of varieties of bearded iris were developed in the United States of America (the USA accounts for more than half of the registered cultivars), with Russia in second place for selection activity, followed by Austria and France.

There are over 30 000 varieties of bearded iris in the world, but none of them has absolutely black, bright red or pure green petals.

One of the latest achievements of breeders are bearded irises of the so-called "Space" group (SA - Space Agers). Their difference lies in the non-standard shape of the beard, expressed by a peculiar growth in the form of a petal - flounce, spoon or horn.