Sunday, November 1, 2009

Tall Bearded Heirloom Iris "SUNSET SNOWS "

October 2009 is on record of being the coldest October in New Zealand since 1945, just witness the frost damage to the edges on the standards and falls in the above photo, and we had plenty of rain as well. This incessant combination of heavy frosts quickly followed with heavy rain has turned most of the early iris blooms into mush, and just when I was thinking there is not to be any photos of early varieties to take this season for the blog, Jean Stevens 'Sunset Snows' begins to bloom and becomes 'the save of the weeks'.
Plant has great increase, bloom stems are a bit short 68cm (27") and I have never been able to grow this iris to its registered height 92cm (36"), branching is best described as average and it is a problem for an iris with such a high bud count making the blooms bunched. Blooms form is plain with no ruffles and a narrowing in the falls giving the bloom a modern tailored look. 'Sunset Snows' colour combination of pure white standards, cocoa pink falls coupled with a tangerine beard was a complete colour break at the time of introduction and is still greatly admired today. With a early and long bloom season and as already mentioned a high bud count, fertile both ways, and producing seed that germinates easily which is not common for a recessive amoena made it a winner for hybridisers. Sunset Snows has proven to be such an important ancestor to modern tangerine bi-colours. The registration pedigree is very vague but interestingly with the Pod parent 'Youthful Charm' the information Jean wrote on the registration application shows the parentage stems back through seven generations before a named variety figures in it's pedigree, then 'Pink Cameo' and 'Flora Zenor' appear also 'Pinnacle'. Then it is another three generations back to any other variety.
In 1967 at the Florence International Iris Garden Competition 'Sunset Snows' received three awards. It won the Piaggio Cup for 'Best early Variety', the Cup of the Florence Garden Club for the 'Most original Colour' and Third place in the Judging for the Premio Firenze. This was the first time any prizes in this competition had come to the Southern Hemisphere, and an unprecedented result for any variety in that one cultivar had collected three prizes .
A very special Iris used extensively by other breeders.

Tall Talk Spring 2004
Bicolors and Amoenas Where to from Here? Barry Blyth.

A few words about Sunset Snows because as far as I am concerned, Jean Stevens began a colour revolution when she introduced this iris. It is a shame she is not with us to see the glorious iris that eventuated from her work.
SUNSET SNOWS (Stevens '65 New Zealand) M. 36". Standards white. Falls cocoa-pink, red beards. YOUTHFUL CHARM X sdlg; from yellow amoena crossed pinks. This is all that is said about it in the AIS Iris checklist 1969.
For me it only reached 32": Branching was very tight, but Bud count was amazing. When well grown there would be an average of 10 to 12 per stem. Also it could produce multiple stems per rhizome. Plants were very small but made abundant increase. First generation crosses gave a range of colours when crossed to non bicolours, such as pink and purple-black bicolours and yellow amoenas. Also dark, near black red bitones like LOCAL COLOR and ROMANTIC EVENING colours. So this is one area where these colours came from in today's Iris. It also gave plenty of selfs. All the seedlings were plain and form and generally branching was tight, but bud count was good. They were nearly all very early, flowering with the dwarfs.
 Barry also more recently made these comments on his website "Our friend Keith Keppel recently had enough time and the urge to track down the family tree of a seedling we had flowered a couple of years previously and we were particularly interested in the reasons for some of its unusual characteristics and he said that one of its ancestors, Sunset Snows, appeared over 1200 times in its background. That is just one of the dozens of varieties that make up its complex family tree. Think of all the seedlings viewed over the 50 years by all the different breeders and work involved just in that one variety alone. It is quite amazing and also wonderful that all these records are available and can be tracked by anyone. It is often easier to track an Iris variety’s pedigree and background than it is to track ones own family history".

Wanganui Irises, Putiki, Wanganui, Irises 1965-66.
Novelties 1965-66:
Here is a sensational new colour combination that Mrs. Stevens has developed from her original pink Amoena strains. Beautifully held, waxen white standards contrast harmoniously with flared and ruffled falls of a warm cocoa toned pink enlivened by a red beard. This completely new colour combination is truly sensational, charming, novel - and crowd-stopping. An iris which makes one wonder if there will ever be any end to the extent and range of colours and colour combinations which may be bred into irises. A very lovely novelty we are proud to introduce. 2½ft. 50 shillings.

The Iris Year Book 1969, Varietal Comment by C.C.Hall
Irises in Florence, May 1969
SUNSET SNOWS (J.Stevens) A huge clump of this Iris which won third prize in the 1967 Trials, carrying some twenty spikes, caught my eye on first entering the iris gardens, and by the end of the week when most of the plants where in flower, it was still, to my mind, the most attractive iris in the garden.It has pure white standards and horizontally-flaring falls of milky, tawny pink with a brownish infusion at the hafts. From a distance of 50 feet or so, it appears as an absolutely clean, deep-pink amoena and is most striking and attractive.

Schreiners Iris Lovers Catalog, 1967.

SUNSET SNOWS (Jean Stevens 1966) EM. 36" $3.00
Sunset on a snow capped peak truly visualizes this most impressive iris. It incorporates pure waxen white standards with contrasting, harmonious warm, cocoa toned pink falls - all enlivened by a red beard. A novel, eye catching amoena. Well-branched stems, medium sized, flaring flowers.

Image courtesy Schreiners 1977 Iris Lovers Catalog

AIS Checklist 1969
SUNSET SNOWS (Mrs J. Stevens, R. 1963). 2-k28-54. TB, 36", M, W4. S. white; F. cocoa pink; red beard. Youthful Charm X sdlg. from yellow amoena crossed pinks. Wanganui 1965. 3rd Prize Florence Cup of Florence,Garden Club,(For most original colour) Piaggio Cup 1967 (For best early variety).

A major hat tip to a good friend Carlos Ayento of Brighton Park Iris for the Schreiners Information. Still available in New Zealand from Julie May, The Iris Garden, Christchurch In the USA you could try Blue J Iris

As always clicking on the above image will take you to the larger, higher resolution version. Reproduction in whole or in part of this post, its opinions or its images without the expressed written permission of Terry Johnson is strictly prohibited. Photo credit and copyright Terry Johnson and Heritage Irises ©.


  1. This is such a beautiful TB iris. Definately one to look out for. I know iris breeding is going towards bigger, more ruffled flowers, that repeat, etc, but I think it might be fun to use old ones like this to breed new 'old-style' TB iris too.

  2. Sunset Snows is a phenomenal variety. Completely unique in its day, it still holds the attention of every visitor that sees it in my garden. It is also one of my all time favorites, and one of only two that I am actively slathering pollen on at every chance (Uranium Belle is the other). I am very surprised it is not more widely grown.

  3. Great site. I am in awe of the iris available around the world. I too have a small collection about (30) i am proud of. I am about to move from the midwest Iowa USA to Mid Texas. A
    fairly fertile soil . I want to move them from iowa to texas, do you have any recommendations,

  4. Hi Karel
    You will get great help by contacting Debbie Strauss Region 17 of the American Iris society and I am sure you will find her contact details at
    Hope you have a trouble free move to your new home


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