"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
Brown Iris Mix

Brown Iris Mix

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

“Brown, like black, has an allure for color-crazed folks keen on one-upping the gardening neighborhood. Sure, everyone has some bronze-colored mums in September, but who has cinnamon and chocolate and copper in May other than an iris lover?

“Most brown irises trace back to antecedents like Iris variegata and a Havana-brown tall bearded from France called ‘Jean Cayeux’ (Cayeux 1931). But it was an Oregon doctor, Rudolph Kleinsorge, who really transformed the iris world, with irises like ‘Aztec Copper’ (1939), ‘Daybreak’ (1941), and ‘Goldbeater’ (1944). These new color breaks took the iris world by storm. Kleinsorge’s crowning achievement, ‘Tobacco Road’ (1942), was a selection from a three-way cross between his own ‘Far West’ (1936), ‘Jean Cayeux’, and ‘Aztec Copper’. Despite winning one of only three-ever-awarded AIS Board of Director’s Medals and being one of the most important tall bearded irises of the 20th century, ‘Tobacco Road’ is impossibly rare in cultivation and perhaps even extinct.”

From “Brown” in The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair:

“[Brown] is not found in a rainbow or on a simple color wheel; making it requires darkening and graying down yellows, oranges, and some impure reds, or mixing together the three artists’ primaries — red, yellow, and blue. That there is no bright or luminous brown led to its being despised by both medieval artists and modernists. For medieval artists, who disliked mixing on principle and saw the glory of God reflected in the use of pure precious materials like ultramarine and gold, brown was inherently corrupt….

“Like some blacks, browns have long been used by artists for underdrawings and sketches. Bister, a dark but not particularly colorfast material, usually prepared from the tarry remains of burned beech wood, was popular. Other notable examples include the yellowy sienna from Italy and umber, which is darker and cooler. A blood-brown earth known as sinopia, after the port it came from, was beloved too….

“The artistic period most associated with browns, and which valued them most for their own sake, came after the first flush of the Renaissance. The principal figures in the works of artists like Correggio, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt stand out like bright islands in spaces full of capacious shadow. So much shadow demanded an extraordinary array of brown pigments — some translucent, others opaque; some warm, others cool — to prevent the works from looking featureless and flat. Anthony van Dyck, a Dutch artist active in the first half of the seventeenth century, was so skilled with one pigment — cassel earth, a kind of peat — that it later became known as ‘Vandyke brown.'”


There are few things in photography that I find as fascinating as studying color, and the irises I encounter on my trips to Oakland Cemetery’s Gardens give me access to a range of colors offered by no other flower. When I come home with several hundred new iris photos, I organize them by color and work on images with similar colors together — because, most likely, those groups were taken in the same area of the gardens and will have approximately the same lighting conditions in addition to their color tones.

Mostly, organizing iris photos this way is straightforward: one of each iris’s colors is often dominant (like orange, peach or pink, purple, white, yellow, or black) or the color differentiation between standards and falls is obvious (like the white and purple, or yellow and burgundy combinations, on a bicolor iris). But there are always some, like those in these photographs, that display such a wide range of colors throughout the flower that I set them aside from the rest. These blended colors are fascinating on their own, and Lightroom finds all the colors whose color channels the software supports in each of the flowers in the photos below: red, orange, yellow, green, aqua, blue, purple, and magenta.

I included a quotation at the top of this post about brown irises, since about half of these — the ones after the double row of asterisks below — show distinct shades of brown (blending with orange or purple) in each flower’s crown. The others, at first glance, certainly don’t seem to be brown, having purple, pink, yellow, or orange shades instead — yet here are the web colors I extracted from those images using a utility I have called ColorSlurp:

When broken down this way, it’s easy to see why we may call irises like this brown, since so many of its constituent colors are shades of brown — with some sliding toward yellow, orange, or purple. In individual irises like these, you can see generations of breeding to produce new colors, with wild or native irises (typically purple, yellow, or white in color) bred to create complex tonal combinations. if you would like to see some similar irises — which may very well be related to these, given the historical relationships described above — click the links in the top quotation. I found all the irises mentioned at the Historic Iris Preservation Society web site.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

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