Portrait of a Lady: Iris histrioides ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’

Spring arrived in earnest today, with temperatures reaching a balmy 16 degrees in the sunshine. The mercury has not been that high since October and one could almost hear the sap starting to rise through each branch, stem and leaf. It was a day firsts: the first day that we enjoyed lunch in the garden (fish-finger sandwiches – naughty but nice); the first day I gardened in a t-shirt (hence I now look like I’ve been in a fight with a farm cat) and the first day that Iris histrioides ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’ graced us with her presence.

Iris histrioides 'Lady Beatrix Stanley', The Watch House, March 2015

Lady Beatrix is a petite little thing, beautifully dressed in light cornflower blue. Her petals are feathered with demure white lace and finished with a daring flash of gold. I did not invite her, she was a substitute for another iris with a name I have long forgotten, such is her allure. In contrast to the reticulata irises I’ve written about recently, I. ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’ has ample, rounded petals and a softer, more feminine profile. She stands a mere 10cm tall and smells delicately of violets, transported by the warmth of the sun.

Iris histrioides 'Lady Beatrix Stanley', The Watch House, March 2015

Naturally I was interested to discover who Lady Beatrix Stanley was. It transpires that she lived at Sibbertoft Manor in Leicestershire (disappointingly now a residential home) with her husband, George, brother of the Earl of Derby. Whilst George was Governor of Madras, Lady Beatrix developed the gardens around their official residency in Ootacamund (Ooty) and sent her drawings of the province’s plants back to the RHS in London. When she and George returned to England, Lady Beatrix took to propagating bulbous plants, particularly snowdrops, hence Galanthus ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’, a delightful double, was named after her in 1981.

Iris histrioides 'Lady Beatrix Stanley', The Watch House, March 2015

I can’t help but imagine that Lady Beatrix would have relished a day like today, striding out into her garden to examine her prized spring flowers. To have survived Southern India in the closing years of the British Empire she must have been made of reasonably stern stuff, and I picture her as one of those ladies, like Rhoda Birley and Vita Sackville-West, who never picked up a trowel unless jauntily attired in tweeds and a hat. As for her namesake iris, she can hold her own amongst the new cultivars that have come on the scene: good breeding always shines through.

Iris histrioides 'Lady Beatrix Stanley', The Watch House, March 2015