A love affair with iris

You would imagine that a passion for a particular plant would lie behind starting a National Collection. A burning desire to collect or realisation that this is one way to safeguard something for future generations. Anne Milner’s National Collection of Bliss Iris began with researching her family history.

Even that was the result of chance. A distant cousin got in touch when she heard Anne, who lives in Baunton, near Cirencester, talking about the family’s milling history on a local radio programme; the Bliss family had produced tweed first in the Stroud Valley and then Chipping Norton before the mill closed in 1981.

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Iris ‘Sweet Lavender’

Anne, whose maiden name was Bliss, joined forces with her cousin, Delia, to research the family’s past.

“Coming back from Gloucester Record Office one day, Delia asked if I would like a piece of Uncle Arthur’s iris.”

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‘Bruno’

It was the first Anne had heard of this distant uncle and it began an interest that has seen her exchanging information with growers across the world, writing a book about the history of Bliss iris and her collection, and exhibiting at this year’s RHS Hampton Court Flower Show in July as part of Plant Heritage’s display of National Collections.

Arthur John Bliss began growing iris in the early 1900s and produced around 150 different cultivars. Of these, the most famous is ‘Dominion’, which was bred in 1917. Purple with yellow on the falls, it has a rich velvety texture and forms the parentage of many of today’s iris.

The iris collection

Building up a National Collection can be a slow process and Anne has managed to track down 32 over the past 20 years. These are grown in her Cotswold garden alongside peonies, clematis, pinks and other cottage garden favourites.

Among them are ‘Clematis’, which has almost flat, clematis-like purple blooms, ‘Susan Bliss’, a pale lavender-pink and ‘Grace Sturtevant’, whose deep purple flowers have a rich orange beard.

‘Tristram’ has dark purple and white flowers.

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‘Iris ‘Tristram’

“It is almost black and white and there’s a wonderful stripe to the base of the foliage.”

‘Sweet Lavender’ is, as its name suggests, a beautiful shade of lavender, ‘Morwell’, one of the first Anne got, is lavender-blue and scented, and ‘Sudan’ has blooms that are purple and gold.

How to grow iris

The Cotswold’s thin often stony soil – known locally as brash – is ideal for growing iris, which like well-drained conditions.

Anne advises dividing plants every two to three years to keep them in top flowering condition.

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‘Susan Bliss’

“The rhizomes like to be baked and once they get too close, the leaves start to shade them.”

Rhizomes should be planted on top of a small ridge of earth with the roots either side. The soil needs to come halfway up the rhizome leaving the top exposed to the sun.

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‘Duke of Bedford’

“Cut the leaves down slightly to stop wind rock,” advises Anne. “Dividing can be done any time between July and September to give them time to settle down before the winter.”

Slugs and snails can be a problem, particularly in wet seasons, and iris can get leaf spot, which looks unsightly. Good garden hygiene and clearing up old leaves is the best course of action. Rhizomes that have rot should be thrown away.

Identifying iris

There are many things that Anne checks when trying to identify the correct name for an iris.

The colour and size are the most obvious but this can be tricky as different growing conditions – or even changes in weather from one year to the next – can affect both.

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Details of colouring help with identification

Sometimes garden records will confirm the correct name: ‘Hester Prynne’ is mentioned in Crathes Castle’s garden lists from the 1930s and is still growing in the grounds.

“The provenance is absolutely fact,” says Anne, who is chairman of the West and Midland Iris Group.

She has worked with the Historical Iris Preservation Society in America, scoured the internet for pictures and references to iris, and hunted through books and articles.

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‘Sudan’

Many of Anne’s iris have come from people who have contacted her asking for help with identifying a plant. That can be very difficult when all she has to go on is a photograph, as the colour does not always come true.

“It’s very hard to identify an iris from a photograph unless it’s something very special.”

Yet it can make sense to persevere.

“It’s worth putting the effort in to try to identify something,” she says. “You don’t know it might bring in something you’re looking for.”

 Bliss Irises Family and Flowers; the Journey to a National Collection by Anne Milner, Troubador Publishing, priced £14.99, is available from Octavia, Cirencester, or can be ordered at bookshops, or from Anne Milner via her website at Bliss Iris

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