Bearded Wonders

irisDoes anyone (else) remember the wonderful garden writer for the Washington Post, Henry Mitchell?  He wrote the Earthman column for years and his collection of essays on gardening, culled from old pieces, The Essential Earthman  is wonderful reading matter for arm chair gardeners everywhere.  The essential thing to know about Henry Clay Mitchell – besides his love of grubbing, building and garden planning – was his absolute passion for bearded iris.

He could never have enough of them.  Year after year, dependably, there would be another piece about the limitations of his Washington garden and about how he never could find enough free ground into which he could cram his selections.  He wrote a piece once about planning an iris bead full of brilliant blues, yellows, and whites, thinking that this would provide him with an explosion of color in May, only to discover that without the essential contrasting shades, his choices were  fizzles instead of  fireworks.  He even recorded the I told you so comment of a neighbor, also an iris grower, who reminded him that she’d warned him he had to include plenty of mauve and pink in there, or his iris display would be a dull one.  He went straight back to the iris drawing board, and remembered his pinks after that.

But can bearded iris ever be dull?  Everyone I have ever grown in my garden beds, and every clump that has somehow managed to colonize itself on unpredictable sectors of the lawn has surprised me.  In Vermont, an especially hardy variety ran amuck near our vegetable patch, flowering in a Thai silk shade of bronze over orange with a wash of maroon near the edges of the petals.   It was the most bizarre color combination you could imagine, never replicated in spring, only in the October ramblings of White Bryony, a plant which goes in for a similar swirl of unlikely colors.

Every year when I see some new kind of Iris, a white and ink purple, or a particularly ruffled pink, or sky blue, I can’t help but think of Henry Mitchell and what he would have thought of all that iris innovation?  Probably he would not have been able to resist adding it, at the expense of color harmony in his iris beds.

Around here, every year I also lobby my family to go to Montclair, where there is a particularly fine and large iris garden, full of blooms which you can’t believe are real, they are so showy.  They look like an alien’s idea of what Terran gardens produce, that is, if he were back on his home planet trying to explain the concept of mauve to them

Then there is the scent of iris.  I find it is unexpectedly cheerful, which must sound strange to perfume enthusiasts, because we are accustomed to the scent as it appears in perfumery,  rather subdued, elegant but dark.

The flower produces a lemon drop of a scent, designed to attract day light pollinators like bees.  There is nothing heavy, nothing the least bit funereal or sad about it.  On the contrary, it is slightly spicy, faintly tart, and reminds me of old fashioned hard candies, the ones made with real sugar.

The only perfume that has ever reminded me of it is Terracotta Voile d’Ete, even though that was supposed to be a carnation scent.  I only know what I smell.  And it smells like irises in bloom to me.  I wonder if Henry Clay Mitchell would have  concurred?



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2 thoughts on “Bearded Wonders

  1. I’ve never heard of Henry Mitchell, but he sounds fascinating, Blacknall. I do love irises–especially the pale yellow ones, and particularly when they are planted next to those pale blue irises that are the color of chickory flowers. But they would look even more striking grown next to those deep mauve irises you picture in your post.

    I don’t grow iris here. There were some planted on our property, and they had the most gorgeous blooms that were apparently too heavy for their stalks. They’d bloom and then fall over, such that I felt like I had to stake them. They’ve pretty much disappeared and I should try planting some iris bulbs, as we’ve had trees removed and our property now gets more sunlight.

    They do have a wonderful cheerful smell, as you noted. As most iris perfumes are derived from iris root, one rarely comes across a perfume that tries to replicate the flower — you’d think there would be many of them, wouldn’t you? In the same way that there are many perfumes that try to replicate lily-of-the-valley.

    • It’s too bad about the falling over irises. Sometimes they do bloom so heavily that they just keel over. Annoys iris growers everywhere.

      And why don’t perfumers try to make iris scents that mimic the actual flower? Never figured that out. There was an MPG Fleur d’Iris that I could not for the life of me smell. What little I could catch did smell a bit like living irises, but so far, Terracotta is the closest approximation. Odd how flowery scents these days are not all that flowery.

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