PUBLISHED: 10:32 12 March 2009 | UPDATED: 15:52 20 February 2013
A life-long love of irises has led to a change of career for Little Walden's Clare Kneen. Philippa Pearson discovers why this delicate flower is so irresistible
HORTICULTURIST, grower and garden designer Clare Kneen has had a long-standing love affair with irises.
'We had irises in our garden in London when I was a child,' says Clare, 'and I've been captivated by them ever since.'
Now living in Little Walden, Clare's childhood interest in irises coupled with a growing passion for plants and gardening eventually led to a change of career. She originally worked in pharmaceutical research but took a year out to study horticulture and complete a gardens diploma at the English Gardening School in London. Her sister, Matilda, also adores irises and it was the purchase of an iris plant a couple of years ago that led to the sisters' setting up an iris nursery.
Matilda bought an iris from a garden centre but instead of the colour shown on the label, the flower bloomed into a completely different, but sensational colour. 'It was a gorgeous deep red colour, not at all what we were expecting,' says Clare. 'Everyone who saw the flower wanted one, so I started to propagate plants for friends and family.' Clare is not sure of the original name of this surprise iris, but has named it Tilda's Treasure in the meantime.
While Tilda's Treasure flourished in her sister's garden, Clare began increasing the collection of irises in her own garden and eventually the sisters set up IrisesOnline, selling irises by mail order. Matilda, who lives in Kent, does all the administration and website design while Clare, a member of the British Iris Society, grows and propagates plants from her home in Little Walden.
Space in Clare's garden soon ran out for growing plants so she took over an allotment nearby as the collection increased, now with more than 100 different varieties, and a corner of a field also flourishes with irises.
With a flowering season, depending on species and variety, starting in early spring and reaching a peak during May and June, irises are essential plants to have in borders. As well as showy and fragrant flowers, the spiky sword-like leaves add height and interest even when plants are
not in flower.
In the iris family, there are essentially two definitions of plants: bearded and beardless. The 'beard' refers to the thick bunch of bushy hairs on the lower petal of the flower. Bearded irises are the pantomime dames of the border, flamboyant, outrageous and flauntingly gorgeous and demand you to stop and stare. Generally, the size of these plants corresponds to when they flower, so the taller the plant, the later it will flower. Dwarf bearded irises will flower from April, intermediates in mid May and tall irises in late May through to early June.
Some repeat flower in September and are known as remontant irises. In the beardless group, you'll find many species and different types of plants including Iris ensata, Iris foetidissima, Iris louisiana, Iris sibirica, Iris spurias, and Iris unguicularis. Bearded irises prefer a dry, sunny site while some of the beardless types like moist conditions, such as pond margins, and flower earlier in the year.
Clare's favourite irises include Tilda's Treasure (of course) and she also recommends Avalon Sunset, Champagne Elegance, Mer du Sud and Superstition.