"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
Iris Blues

Iris Blues

From Classic Irises and the Men and Women Who Created Them by Clarence E. Mahan:

“Various cultivated forms of Iris pallida, including ‘Dalmatica’ and its nearly identical pretenders, grow over most of North America in gardens and cemeteries, around old abandoned buildings, along country roads, city streets, and major highways. In McLean, Virginia… one form decorates the pathways outside several banks and real estate offices. It seems to flourish with no dividing or other cultivation. These irises are a link to the past, a symbol of a time when a fragrant pastel violet iris with handsome foliage was the height of beauty….

“Almost all 19th-century garden irises were forms or hybrids of two European species:
Iris pallida and Iris variegata. The discovery of several natural tetraploid tall bearded irises in the latter decades of the 19th century, especially Iris trojana, Iris mesopotamica, Iris cypriana, and the cultivar known as ‘Amas’ (also known as Iris macrantha), made it possible for iris hybridizers to breed garden irises with double the diploid number of chromosomes. Almost all modern tall bearded irises are tetraploids, meaning they have four sets of chromosomes.”

From A Guide to Bearded Irises: Cultivating the Rainbow for Beginners and Enthusiasts by Kelly Norris:

“Iris lovers heart blue. Actually, I think people heart blue. We’ve been long lost on a quest for true blue in nature, and when we do encounter it, it holds us in deep rapture. Fortunately for iris lovers that rapturous experience storms the garden each spring, laden with ruffles and sassy, audacious flowers….

“[Blue] covers a lot of ground, describing the world from the ocean to the sky. Color experts would distinguish true spectrum blue (105C on the RHS Colour Chart) from the violet-blue group of colors we register as wisteria blue, cornflower, bluebird, medium blue, and so on….

“The bearded iris world sports thousands of blue irises throughout the range just described, but spectrum blue bearded irises are inexplicably rare, with only one confirmed report in the Bulletin of the American Iris Society, from Virginia hybridizer Don Spoon, of its turning up in a seedling patch….”


Here we have a collection of similarly-colored irises, three different variants that were showing off their good-mood blues a couple of weeks ago at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens. All of them would fall under the generic term “bearded iris” for obvious reasons (they have bitty beards!) but beyond that, I can more precisely identify only the first thirteen — as Iris pallida, which can also refer to other irises of varying appearance and color. I’ve previously photographed this iris along with Iris pallida variegata, and comparing the two made them easier to identify.

This particular iris pallida has flowers that are mostly pale (“pallida”) blue, and its leaves are green; Iris pallida variegata has flowers with the same structure but are more violet or purple than blue, and its distinctive bi-color leaves have a green and yellow (sometimes white) stripe. I realized when working on this set that I had not seen any Iris pallida variegata blooms this year, though had seen their unique leaves. On a trip back to the gardens this weekend, I hunted them down again and discovered that the plants produced plenty of leaves but no flowers (and there were no post-flowering empty stems) so I guess they’re taking a 2024 spring vacation.

Like the black irises I wrote about just last week (see Black Iris Variations and Observations) whose blue and purple colors could be flipped, the thirteen photos below could be rendered in either light blue or light purple; and, indeed, if you look at them on a device that has the ability to reduce blue light, you can see how they would look in the alternate color. But since Lightroom detects much more blue than purple in this case, I’ve adjusted them to look as I think someone would see them in “real life”: mostly blue, with touches of light purple that are more evident as you lean in (or the camera zooms in) to see greater detail and more variations in color. Still the extent of blue versus purple varies for each flower; and any of them may appear more blue or more purple depending on their actual colors, growing conditions, and lighting. To see some additional variations, try this image search for “blue iris pallida.”

The remaining flowers — especially the extra-fluffy, nearly translucent ones in the middle — registered very little purple, so they are, I think, closer to the true blue or “spectrum blue” mentioned in the second quotation at the top of this post. If you’d like to read more about the color blue in nature — and an explanation for its rarity relative to other colors — the article Why is the Color Blue so Rare in Nature? provides a good overview of blue’s distinguishing characteristics.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!


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