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Trends in iris breeding

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Jennifer Redmond Jennifer Redmond | 15:03 UK time, Wednesday, 6 April 2011


Why produce bearded iris with ever more ruffled and larger flowers? Michael Loftus, who runs a Suffolk nursery specialising in bearded iris, hemerocallis, pelargoniums and auriculas, thinks some of the world's leading Iris breeders seem to have got completely stuck in this rut.

I spend a large part of each winter surfing the web and leafing through catalogues looking at new developments in plant breeding. Sounds fun doesn't it?

But most of what I see often leaves me feeling wearied and depressed.

Old fashioned criteria, such as elegance and good proportions, seem to have no place in the modern iris breeder's lexicon. As a result I find myself searching out historic varieties of bearded iris.

What can be more beautiful than the simple elegance of Iris 'Tishomingo', bred by Caldwell in 1942, or the elegant Benton range of Irises introduced by the painter Sir Cedric Morris in the 1950s.

Modern bearded iris tend to have congested, muddled standards and stubby, scarcely pendant falls. The classic varieties of breeders such as Caldwell and Sir Cedric Morris have tall arching standards which allow and invite the eye to look through and beyond and long narrow pendant falls which balance the ascendant standards.

Much the same story applies to Hemerocallis (daylilies). Most Modern Hemerocallis are bred to have huge multicoloured flowers with thick coarse petals and heavy braided edges. Subtle is not a word one can apply here.

Luckily there is a small group of American breeders bucking the trend. Ned Roberts and Margot Reed over the last five years have introduced numerous lovely new cultivars with elegant spidery petals in retrained colours. Ned Robert's 'Kathryn June Wood' is perhaps the best pink Hemerocallis ever! Margot Reed's 'Brown Witch' is also a great delight - elegantly proportioned and a real brown, rather than just red pretending to be brown.

Much the same goes for pelargonium breeding. Most modern breeding concentrates on producing zonals and regals with ever bigger and more outrageous flowers. Very little work is done breeding from the many elegant species and old scented-leaved varieties - though a recent delightful exception is Pelargonium 'Angel Eyes Orange'.

Outside our specialities, my main dismay is against the creeping tide of dwarfism.

Why dwarf such beautiful leggy lovelies as Verbena bonariensis? They have though - it's called V. bonariensis 'Little One'. Tall, airy Knautia macedonica has been reduced to K. macedonica 'Mars Midget', stately-stemmed Leucanthemum x superbum has a midget offspring in L. superbum 'Broadway Lights', and Perovskia 'Blue Spire', whose stems should stab the sky, is down to a mere 60cm in P. atriplicifolia 'Little Spire').

Of course garden centers love dwarf plants - they present so much better in pots for impulse purchases. As usual the public gets what the retailers want us to have, rather than what we would like to have.

And the horticultural press does not help. Garden magazines endlessly exhort owners of small gardens to choose dwarf plants - why, I completely fail to understand. Small gardens most of all need tall plants. Who wants a flat shoebox of a garden? Let's colonise a bit of the sky!

My hope for the future is that plant breeders look again for their inspiration in species plants; we need elegance, not ostentation, and the natural grace of wild flowers are in this our best tutor.

Michael Loftus is the owner of Woottens of Wenhaston, a Suffolk nursery specialising in bearded iris, hemerocallis, pelargoniums and auriculas.


  • Comment number 1.

    On the issue of leggy plants, a tip for people who don't enjoy staking is to dig them up each winter and replant them. This works a treat for Shasta Daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum) and also the the herb tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), with the root system disturbed the plant respond with shorter stems.


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