Reticulata irises are one of the joys of spring, but we seem to have been growing the same varieties for decades. In fact, the ones I used to look after when I worked in the Alpine House at Kew Gardens over thirty years ago are, basically, the ones we still grow. Well, until now.
There’s a fascinating piece in the Royal Horticultural Society’s monthly membership The Garden this month, by Assistant Editor Phil Clayton, about Canadian iris breeder Alan McMurtrie and the amazing varieties he’s developed.
It’s been a long haul. Alan began his work many years ago, soon after I was working with the irises at Kew, in fact, but it takes five years for the seed produced by crossing one variety with another to build a big enough bulb to flower. And that’s only the start, because after two or three generations of crosses and selections and a new seedling is finally seen to be good enough to be named – then a large number of bulbs have to propagated so that they can be sold and that takes a long time. Alan has been developing these lovely little plants for thirty years and only now are his new varieties becoming available to gardeners.
He’s been continually expanding the range of colors and color combinations. The white ‘White Caucasus’ and the blue-and-white ‘Eye Catcher’ (top) were amongst the first to be named but Alan also has improved varieties in the familiar blue and purple shades, 'Splish Splash' (below), along with new varieties in vivid yellow, and orange, yellow with navy blue marks and with smokey tints ('Storm', left) or brown speckles… They’re just amazing.
You can read the article about Alan’s irises from The Garden online, and in next month’s issue of another Royal Horticultural Society magazine, The Plantsman, you can read a more detailed account. Alan McMurtie is refreshingly open about his work and Alan's website includes many pages of details and a huge number of pictures.
Alan is lecturing in Britain this month, so this is a great opportunity to hear about his irises from the man himself. He’ll be speaking at the RHS London Flower Show on 16 February, at a meeting of the Scottish Rock Garden Club in Dunblane on 20 February, and at the Alpine Garden Society’s show at Harlow in Essex, just north of London, on 27 February. At present, he has no North American lectures scheduled.
Like to buy some bulbs? In Britain take a look at the offerings from Jacques Amand, at Broadleigh Gardens, at Pottertons, and at Rare Plants. In North America you can buy some of Alan’s varieties at McClure & Zimmerman, at White Flower Farm and at Botanus.com. Of course the plants are flowering now, you ill be able to order bulbs later in the year.
Jacques Amand featured Alan’s irises at the Philadelphia Flower Show last year, and will do so again next year, but this year the theme is tulips. This week’s RHS London Flower Show will feature an extensive range, shown by Jacques Amand
Oh, yes… You want to know how to grow them. Here’s what Alan recommends:
“They should be planted 3in (8 cm) deep in well drained soil (a touch deeper is fine). They don't mind snow melt in the spring, but don't like to be near a downpipe in summer. Plant about the same distance apart. Resist the urge to plant too close together. If you've given them the right conditions they will form clumps.
“Remember new bulbs are forming at the base of each leaf. They represent next year's bloom. So don't go ripping them out and wonder why you don't have flowers next year. The longer they stay green, the bigger the bulbs will be.”
Images © Alan McMurtie Thank you for making details of your work so freely available.