Member Essay

The Small Spurias

Many people are familiar with the large hybrid spurias. These plants are quite tall, sometimes to five or six feet, and are very stiff upright plants. They are excellent at the back of a large border. In many gardens however they are just too tall to fit into the landscape. There are several spuria species that are quite different from the more familiar hybrids and the large species from which they were derived. These small more graceful species fit into smaller gardens quite well. Below is a brief description of these smaller species.

I. graminea is the most commonly encountered one of these species. It grows eight to fifteen inches tall with narrow grassy upright leaves as the name indicates (gramineae being the name of the grass family). The standards are purple blue and the falls are white heavily lined with blue violet. As in most spurias the falls consist of a long horizontal haft culminating in a small round blade. The hafts are concealed by rather showy styles of very pale blue violet with a dark almost purple center stripe. This iris is commonly called the "Plum Scented Iris" because of it's strong fragrance of ripe plums. I. graminea tends to bloom in the leaves but is still a garden worthy plant. One or two stems in a bud vase makes a lovely bouquet, this is one iris I recommend for cutting.

Two other closely related irises are I. colchica and I.pseudocyperus. I. colchica is fairly universally considered to be a form of I. graminea but I. pseudocyperus on the other hand has been the base of much botanical discussion. I think the new species book by the British Iris Society makes more sense than anyone. They state that I. pseudocyperus may be just a form of I. graminea but they feel that from the gardeners standpoint there is a big difference. The flowers of the two plants have the same form but in I. pseudocyperus the color is brighter and it is a much larger bloom and is not scented of ripe plums. The plant of I. pseudocyperus has much wider leaves which are quite lax. The whole plant tends to arch over and is more suitable for the top of a wall or the edge of a border. The flowers of I. pseudocyperus are on short stems but show well above and among the leaves.

I. sintenisii is another of the small spurias that you may encounter. This is smaller in all it's parts than I. graminea generally growing no more than six to ten inches tall. The plant has short rhizomes and forms a tight clump of narrow arching leaves which are evergreen, quite thick and almost leathery. The flowers have the same form as I. graminea but I. sintenisii flowers are a deep rather bright blue. Again the falls are white heavily veined with the same deep blue.

Like I. graminea, I. sintenisii has a closely related variety and one subspecies. Iris sintenisii var. urumovii is not generally in cultivation so is of little concern to us here. It's chief differences from the species being that it is an upright plant with very glaucous leaves that are deciduous. However I.sintenisii subspecies brandzae is a garden worthy plant. It has very narrow 1/8 inch wide leaves that are quite bluish in color and makes a dainty little plant. The form of I. brandzae grown by Jean Witt has wonderful terra‑cotta colored pods that are every bit as showy in the fall as the flowers are in the spring.

Another of the small spurias that is rarely found in cultivation is I. pontica. From the descriptions I have read a rather muddy blue purple flower on short stems surrounded by tufts of much longer leaves that effectively conceal the flowers. Not something well recommended in most of the books. At least if you run across the name you will know what it is.

The last of the small spurias we will discuss is I. kerneriana. This slender species is the only one of the small spurias that is yellow. I. kerneriana grows about eight to twelve inches tall. The flowers are typical of other spurias in form but are quite large for such a small plant. The color is a pale primrose yellow with a deeper spot on the blade of the falls. the foliage is quite narrow and of a bluish green color. I. kerneriana is a very neat little iris that is an asset to the rock garden or border. One problem with I. kerneriana is that it seems to be a bit difficult to establish. Once growing for you it is fairly easy.

The culture of all these small spurias seems to be similar. They all seem to prefer neutral to slightly acid soil. Most need plenty of water in spring but will not tolerate soggy soil so good drainage is necessary. Later in the summer some drying is acceptable but the shallow rooted ones like I. sintenisii will not tolerate a total drying out or baking. Most are fairly heavy feeders. The culture of these small spurias is not difficult if you pay attention to watering, feeding and especially good drainage.

Most of these small spuria species are available from time to time through specialty nurseries such as Heronswood or Reflective Gardens. An inexpensive and easy way to start with them is by seed. Several of the seed exchanges have seed for them and SIGNA seed exchange almost always has a selection.

Contributed to the KCIS Newsletter by Carla Lankow, October 1997