Iris was never my favorite garden flower. This should be admitted right away because I know many people love iris whether in perfume or in flower form, and the taste for them has been a long time coming in this case.
My mother who was a better gardener than I am, always adored iris and always had them in some form or other in her garden beds. In Vermont I remember Siberian irises being her choice probably because of their hardiness. I found that the old bearded Iris germanica* grew like topsy in the cold little town we inhabited. I inherited three big clumps of it which had to be divided, and I did a very clumsy job of hacking the rhizomes ( what is the difference between a root and a rhizome? See illustration) and then dropping (!), some around the yard where they actually took root and thrived. I was literally lousy with iris.
I have since grown Siberians, Japanese , Dutch and species iris, but the bearded remain my favorites because of the ridiculously showy blooms. I wish they looked better in the garden for the rest of the season. I loved the Siberians because of their gorgeous regimented foliage. See? How can you go wrong with that in a garden? They break up a horizontal planting beautifully and my own trick was to plant them next to pinks which tended to be flat and to spread.
The other part of the iris gardener’s reward is scent. Many iris do have a fragrance and
that was what I discovered about them back in Vermont. My own experience with iris germanica varieties ( which these days translate to the taller bearded iris usually flowering over 36 inches) is that the blues have the best smell. That’s odd because with other flowers it’s generally the white flowered varieties that have the strongest perfumes. Iris are idiosyncratic though and the blues have it in my opinion.
What is the smell? After years of sniffing beardeds my first impression is of candy, the old rock candy that you can find crystallized on sticks to make lollipops. This clear sweet scent has no indole component at all, the scent of the blue beardeds is almost translucent. Next I get a slightly green fragrance that reminds me of violet leaves as opposed to violet flowers. I mention this because to me the smell of violet in perfumery is slightly off. I’ve grown scented violets and you can’t smell them for long because something about their odor actually anesthetizes your nose. You go nose blind after one minute or so, consequently the heavy continual note called violet in perfumery tends to make me say, ” Violets? Oh really?”. Iris have the advantage over violets in that you don’t have the same problem, and in my experience the smell of iris is not as high pitched as violets’ and is greener usually. I don’t perceive any powder either..
The powder that most people pick up around iris perfumes like the Chanels is traceable to the use of the powdered rhizome ( if the scent is natural which is a big if) and the iris butter derived from those rhizomes, which gives off a smell that most of us associate with face powder or cosmetics. That scent is not in the living flowers or only faintly as a trace note, those are closer as I say to violets but with a more ethereal spun sugar lift. A clump of beardeds in bloom can give you a delicate cotton candy fragrance suspended over the earthy smell of the soil they grow in and no one has succeeded in reproducing that fragrance in the perfume world yet. I wait for it every May, and it’s worth the wait.
If you want to experience it yourself, try some of the Iris catalogs, scented varieties are usually marked but if you find a neighbor with a large clump of well scented blue beardeds in May, try begging. A little flattery and the offer to help divide the clump (hard work I warn you) may earn you a free rhizome or two.
*Iris germanica is one of the varieties grown for orris root. Wyman’s gardening Encyclopedia even accuses orris root of showing up in tooth powders! An expensive way to brush your teeth.