Monday, February 26, 2024

The 1922 Conference

by Sylvain Ruaud

Anyone familiar with the history of iridophilia knows that it originated in France in the early 19th century.

The first cultivated variety of iris, by Mr. de Bure, dates back to 1822, and it was this event that gave
Philippe de Vilmorin the idea for a world conference on irises. At the time, Philippe de Vilmorin was a
leader in the iris world. He was a flamboyant figure whose presence and activity, as well as his work as a plant breeder, gave him unquestionable authority. The idea of an international conference dates back to 1914. Philippe de Vilmorin had his project submitted to the SNHF's Floriculture Committee by his loyal partner Séraphin Mottet, the man who actually carried out the cross-breeding his employer had imagined, but of course, although the project seemed attractive to everyone, events prevented it from coming to fruition. It wasn't until 1921 that the same Séraphin Mottet, still devoted to his late boss, revived the project. The year 1922 seemed an appropriate one to convene the proposed conference, as it was the centenary of the appearance of the first cultivated variety of iris.

France had thus been the cradle of garden irises, but since M. de Bure's initiatives, things had changed
dramatically: first Great Britain, then the United States, had followed in France's footsteps, and even in
America, the iris phenomenon had already grown to such an extent that France's position was quite
reduced, the war having interrupted the work of our hybridizers, while those in America had continued
their research and, as a result, taken the lead over their European colleagues. The idea of putting our
country back in the competition, by placing it at the origin of an original and prestigious initiative, was
bound to be a hit with French horticultural and botanical authorities. So Philippe de Vilmorin and
Séraphin Mottet's project took shape. An ad hoc committee was set up within the SNHF (Société
Nationale d'Horticulture de France) to take charge. It decided that the conference:
- should be international;
- should cover all known and cultivated categories of iris;
- would bring together the most eminent specialists, who would contribute with papers and materials;
- a plenary session would be held in Paris in the spring of 1922.

The Conference was enthusiastically supported by the world's leading Iridophiles, i.e. the English and
Americans, since at the time the Germans were in disgrace and other countries had not yet been hit by the wave of Iridophilia. Among the foreigners who answered "yes" to the French proposal were Arthur Bliss, William Dykes, Alice Harding, Amos Perry and George Yeld for Great Britain, and Grace Sturtevant and John Wister for the USA. On the French side, the most prominent participants were Messrs D. Bois, F. Cayeux, F. Denis, L. Millet, S. Mottet, A. Nomblot, A. Nonin, J. Pinelle, M. Turbat and the de Vilmorin family.

The Conference Board was appointed in November 1921 and comprised Messrs Bois, Chairman, Dykes
and Wister, Honorary Chairmen, Cayeux and de Vilmorin, Vice-Chairmen, Guillaumin, Mottet and
Pinelle, Secretaries, and Millet, Vice-Secretary. These were the most important people in the iris world at the time.

The plenary session took place on May 27, 1922 at the SNHF headquarters in Paris. The discussions were lively and interesting, with the French not always in agreement with their English-speaking colleagues, but a consensus was reached on all the subjects debated. In particular, it was decided that the Americans would be responsible for registering the names and characteristics of all varieties appearing in the world.

They still exercise this prerogative, and it has become an essential function. Of course, all participants then went to the major nurseries in the Paris region to admire the new varieties of Messrs Cayeux, Millet, Nonin and Vilmorin (1). It's worth noting that the flowering season was a little later then than it is today, when irises bloom a fortnight earlier.

The proceedings of this conference were recorded in a book entitled "Les Iris Cultivés", published by the SNHF in 1923.

It was a great event, but had no immediate follow-up. The Commission des Iris was not active again until 1927. The Conference itself never met again until the International Congress in Orleans, once again organized by French irisarians, in 1978, and even then our American colleagues didn't show much interest in this event, so it didn't have the impact of the 1922 Conference, which remains a unique event in the iris world. It's true that these days it's not necessarily necessary to bring everyone together. Exchanging messages or holding a videoconference can achieve the same result! Nevertheless, a meeting between colleagues from all over the world would be of irreplaceable human interest.
(1) The novelties of 1922 are few and not among the most interesting:

At Ferdinand Cayeux, the only one of any renown was the superb dark garnet 'Peau Rouge'; but 1922 also saw the launch of 'Jean Chevreau', a brown plicata on a cream ground, and 'Le Grand Ferré', an unusual tawny-brown color. At Armand Millet, visitors were able to admire 'Simone Vaissière', a remarkable aniline-blue amoena, while at Auguste Nonin the star of the year was 'Odette Olivet', a bright pink single color tinged with lilac. As for Vilmorin, still reeling from the death of its brilliant owner, 1922 was not the best year for them, and the two registered varieties, 'Thésée' and 'Timothée', left no trace.