Monday, June 17, 2013

The Dirty Iris

This post is about an old-fashioned iris, not one that is very attractive, but one that has a lot of pretension. It is also about gardening friends exchanging plants and, finally, about Joséphine de Beauharnois, Napoléon’s first wife.

Many years ago, my friend Cheryl rescued a few garden plants from a property where the house was being pulled down, and the garden bulldozed to make room for a new building.

She got a rose bush and a few irises. She did not know what to expect, but planted them in her garden. I don't remember how the rose turned out, but the iris was an old-fashioned purple and yellow one. Not having a name for it, she called it “the Dirty Iris”, and this was quite appropriate. As you can see from the above pictures, the yellow color tends to be brownish. It is a “dirty” yellow.
She decided not to keep it and asked me if I wanted it. We have a lot of room at Roche Fleurie, and so I took it.

I brought it here, and put it on the ground in a “wild” area where I wanted to plant it. However, I must have been distracted, as I completely forgot about it. I only remembered it two years later when it was in bloom! It had sent down roots on its own and was growing well, competing with tall grass where it is still growing.

Where does Joséphine fits in all this? Some years later, in a book of reproductions of Redouté’s paintings of Joséphine’s flowers (she was a keen gardener, and Redouté was her official flower painter) to my surprise I came to a picture of Cheryl's dirty iris. In fact, the name was what I first noticed – Redouté was calling it “Iris x squalens” – “Iris sale”, which of course means “dirty iris”. It was a purple and dirty yellow iris, just like Cheryl’s.

I have no illusions that these two irises are genetically identical, but obviously they have a lot in common. It is not a rare cultivar at all, which is not surprising if some versions of it has been grown for over 200 years. The coincidence that the same name for similar irises would come to mind to my friend Cheryl and to Joséphine de Beauharnois, separated as they are by two centuries,  is amusing. Whenever it blooms among the tall weeds next to the parking area, I feel I am enjoying a bit of the Château de Malmaison garden and that I have the blessings of Joséphine and Redouté.


  1. That is such a great story! It may be a dirty iris, but it looks quite pretty to me, plus it seems to be very tough, which is not to be scoffed at.

  2. It certainly is tough. As I said, I left the tuber sitting on the ground, not even buried, and 2 years later it was booming. No doubt this is why it has survived so long.

  3. I like this story, and the iris too.


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