Showing Irises

We hold an iris show every year. Please join in and bring some stalks from your garden, whether it's your first time or you're an old hand.

Here are some tips for selecting and preparing iris stalks for a show (adapted from a Delaware Valley Iris Society article by Vince Lewonski).

This may be the most critical part. How do you decide what looks good enough to take to a show? Start looking at your garden several days ahead to see which stalks have potential. If a stalk looks like it will have fresh flowers open by show day and the branching and spacing look good, you may want to mark it with a piece of colored yarn. Some people cut their stalks the night before, but I wait until the morning of the show so I can pick ones that have just opened. But if bad weather threatens, you may want to cut the stalks and bring them inside ahead of time.

The flowers should have no faults. This is hard to find, and even harder still to get those perfect flowers to the show. Bent petals, bruised petals, holes from aphids, extra petals, petals pointing in strange directions, and spider webs all detract from the flower's beauty. Tears in the petal are okay as long as they are naturally occurring, and don't deform the petal. Having multiple flowers open is a plus, but not a requirement. You're better off having a stalk with one nice flower rather than several that are starting to shrivel, tear, or display other faults. And you want flowers that will look good when the judges view them, not just when you see them before the show.

If a stalk is leaning badly, you won't be able to get it to stand up straight in the bottle and the flowers will tend to point outwards. If you see a leaning stalk that you think has potential, be sure to stake it a couple days before the show. This will give the flowers time to change their alignment and point upwards as they should.

If an iris has multiple branches, they should all be in the same plane. Even having several nice open flowers might not be enough if the branches are all pointed in different directions. The stalk selected should be free or nearly free of leaf spot. Some leaf trimming is allowed but if extensive and obvious, it will be penalized by the judges.

When possible, choose a stalk with the top bud open.

  • If there are multiple flowers open, they should all be the same size. (Secondary buds from the same socket tend to be smaller.)
  • You don't want any flower to be rubbing up against the stalk or another flower.
  • Flowers should be nearly vertical. Pointed in towards the stalk is known as "towing in" and pointed out away from the stalk is known as "towing out." Both of these are faults that will be penalized.
  • You can help flowers that tow in or have a petal rubbing up against the stalk by wedging a piece of cotton or cork between the branch and the stalk. This may be enough to keep it in that position by show time. Just remember to take out your wedge when you get to the show!

Cut the stalk as close to the ground as possible. You can always cut it shorter for display, while it's impossible to make it taller. Usually there's a leaf or two attached near its base. You can remove these. On the other hand, keep any leaf that's attached to the stalk above the bottle neck.

If the cultivar is a space-ager, make sure that all flowers are uniform. Space-agers tend to have some beards with horns, some with flounces, and some with just a regular beard. If the variety is supposed to have horns, it may be penalized if some petals have horns and others don't.

Label the irises at home as you cut them so there won't be any memory lapses at the show. Don't write on the stalk — if the judges notice, they may take off points. Write the names on a string tag and loosely wrap it around a branch until you're at the show.

The tricky part is getting the stalks to the show. I put the bottles in a box that once held a case of wine, making sure they're spaced far enough apart so that no petals hit one another or any car parts. Generally, I fit about six stalks into a case-sized box. Newspapers can be used for wedging in the bottles.

Various other techniques are used. People make holders out of wood with PVC pipe mounted at an angle. There are caps or corks at the bottom of the pipes. Others use chicken wire in a 5-gallon pail with water in the bottom. Still others put the stalks in bottles, and then lay the bottles down with the stalks resting on the edge of a cardboard box with "V"s cut into it to hold the stalks in place. [Some contestants put all their stalks into one large bucket and hope for the best.]

Be very, very careful driving to the show. Corners and stop lights are not your friends!

Stick the stalk into the bottle and step back. Does the curve of the stalk at the base prevent it from standing straight? If so, you may want to trim off a few inches. Does it look top heavy because all the branching and flowers are well above the bottle? Again, you may want to trim the base of the stalk. Generally, the bottom branch should start a few inches above the neck of the bottle.

Often the lowest branch starts so low to the ground that when you put it in the bottle, the base of the stalk doesn't touch the bottom of the bottle. This can make for an unstable stalk, but having the lower branch right up against the bottle neck makes it look unbalanced. Raise it up to a level that's pleasing and then wedge the stalk at that height with a cotton ball or a cut section of stalk. You can use this same method to hold any stalk in place. Just make sure the cotton or pieces of stalk do not stick up above the neck of the bottle.

If there's a branch where all the buds have already bloomed, carefully cut it off where it joins the stalk. This is hard to do and still make it look natural, so such stalks should be chosen only if they are otherwise excellent. Take off any spent blossoms, carefully cutting the ovary off at the base. Use a cotton ball to wipe off any fingerprints from the stalk. If there are cobwebs, insects, etc., take these off carefully. Sometimes the tip of the leaves can turn brown or have leaf spot. Use a scissors to carefully trim off the brown area, but maintain the graceful shape of the leaf, and cut off no more than ¼ inch. Never, ever cut the leaf straight across!

GSIS provides some bottles and also allows you to use your own containers provided they meet show requirements (dark glass wine bottles).

Occasionally you have a really thick stalk that's just too fat for the bottle. Try to find a wider necked bottle for this monster. Or you may have to trim the base of the stalk vertically to a size that can fit into the bottle. Make sure the cut portion is not exposed above the neck of the bottle.

For other than tall bearded, a smaller bottle can provide better proportion for a smaller, shorter iris. Try a dessert wine bottle, a beer bottle or even a little wine bottle such as those served on airplanes. In any case, the smaller bottle should be the same color as the other show bottles and, of course, the labels should be removed.

Flowers that are partially opened at the time they are judged will be marked down, so if you have a bud that is only partly opened, you may be able to speed it along by putting warm (not hot) water in the bottle, keeping it in a warm room, judiciously using a blow dryer, and, as a last resort, carefully helping it along with your fingers.

GSIS will have some tools but to be safe, bring scissors, cotton balls, a sharp knife, Q-tips, a bottle with water and a pen. Make sure you get to the show in plenty of time to unload (carefully), make out tags, and do any last minute touch-ups or adjustments. There will be a lot of hustle and bustle as people try to get their stalks ready. You don't want to be caught short of time.

Every stalk entered needs a tag filled out. These are special tags with a bottom section that can be torn off after the judging. To fill out the tag, you need to know the registered name of your iris, and the type (tall bearded, Siberian, etc.). You will also need to know the division and section codes for each stalk. These can be found in the show schedule. If you're not sure of the name of your iris, please don't guess. Label it a mystery iris or unknown, and enter it in the Unidentified Class. It's helpful to bring return address labels so you won't have to fill out your name and address repeatedly. Make sure you fill out both the top and bottom portions of the tag! The bottom portion is folded up and tucked in so only the name of the iris and the class show.

You may only enter one stalk of each variety. A historic tall bearded stalk may be entered either in the Historic Class or the Tall Bearded Class, but not both. If entering the Collection Class (three or more stalks of the same cultivar), however, you may also enter the same cultivar as an individual stalk.

Your iris stalk is now ready to be placed by the show committee. Except for the people assisting the judges, no one is allowed in the area with the stalks once judging starts. Now is the time to get coffee and be nervous. 😉 After all judging is finished and the best stalks are moved to the head table, you may go into the show area and see how well your entries did. But even if you aren't on the head table, it's still a lot of fun to see all the different entries and admire all the irises you've never seen before. Write down the names of those you might want to buy. Talk to the other exhibitors and the judges to find out how you could have prepared your stalks better. And look forward to the next time!