Monday, August 3, 2020

A FRENCH PIONEER : PHILIPPE DE VILMORIN

By Sylvain Ruaud


The Origins The French Lévêque de Vilmorin family had long been interested in iris hybridization, when Henry de Vilmorin, then President of the family business, acquired in 1895 the iris variety called 'Amas', whose exceptional flower size was likely to please not only iris collectors but also all other garden owners. 'Amas' was introduced to Great Britain around 1885 by Sir Michael Foster, but it was in fact a species iris, called I. mesopotamica, I. trojana or I. cypriana depending on the region where it was harvested. By attempting hybridizations with this iris Henry de Vilmorin was convinced that he would achieve an improvement of the species, just as he had previously done with wheat or as his father had done with sugar beet. It was very much an inspiration, because at the time there was still no knowledge of plant genetics and the notion of diploidy or tetraploidy did not exist. 'Amas', like the other irises of the Near East, was tetraploid (having 4N chromosomes; 2N being the base number), whereas the irises of Europe were only diploid, therefore they only had half as many chromosomes, but nobody knew this in 1895.


'Ambassadeur'--image by Mike Lowe


For this operation Henry de Vilmorin was assisted by his son Philippe (full name Joseph Marie Philippe) was born in 1872 and died in 1917. This horticulture enthusiast was also the father of a prestigious family, with six children, including two daughters who achieved fame in the years before and after the Second World War: Marie-Pierre, known as Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec (1), and Louise (2), who made a name for herself in writing because of her affair with the writer André Malraux, at the end of their respective lives. However, the place taken by the Vilmorins in the world of irises could not have been achieved without the intervention of their chief gardener Séraphin Mottet. Séraphin Mottet was born in 1861 and, after scientific studies, joined Vilmorin-Andrieux in 1880. Most of his professional life took place within this major company to which he always remained faithful and devoted. Afterwards, the man who had for so long remained in the shadow of Henri, Philippe and then Jacques de Vilmorin, flew on his own wings and devoted his time to teaching and writing. Loyalty is surely the major quality of Séraphin Mottet: if the House of Vilmorin, at the beginning of the 20th century, was the reference in iris matters, it owes it to this man, but there is no variety that bears the name of Mottet in brackets. Yet irises such as 'Ambassadeur' (1920) and 'Alliès' (1922) are most certainly the work of this man.

'Allies'


Ex-American Iris Society President, Clarence Mahan, in his book “Classic Irises and the Men and Women who created them,” describes him as a small person, always well dressed, with a somewhat very pronounced elegance. According to Mahan, Mottet could have served as a model for Agatha Christie’s famous detective Hercule Poirot, but with a beard always impeccably trimmed, which the detective does not wear! Beneath this peculiar appearance was a cultivated character, speaking perfect English, to the point of translating botanical and horticultural works for irises were not his only field of interest. As early as 1892 he wrote, alone or in the company of other botanists, many didactic works on roses, potatoes, carnations or conifers. However, it was to irises that he devoted a major part of his work, while remaining in the shadow of his employer. So, it was Henry de Vilmorin, his son Philippe and Séraphin Mottet who gave a new direction to the company and made it one of the world leaders in iris hybridization. However, this association was short-lived since Henry de Vilmorin died in 1899. It was Philippe de Vilmorin who then took over the family business. He was obviously extremely interested in iris cultivation and hybridization. Therefore in 1903, when his colleague Verdier died, Philippe bought his collection of botanical irises and old cultivars. This rich collection, certainly the most beautiful of the time, was, along with the Middle Eastern tetraploid irises, the basis of the hybridization work of the Vilmorin-Andrieux firm, which consisted of assembling the qualities of large irises such as 'Amas', unfortunately monochrome, and the varied shades of the European varieties. The first irises in the Vilmorin catalogue were registered as early as 1904. Clarence Mahan specifies that among the new products there were four large irises resulting from crossbreeding from the famous 'Amas'. These were 'Tamerlan', 'Isoline', 'Miriam' and 'Loute'. All four mark the beginning of a new era in the field of large garden irises, an era that continues to this day. In this, Philippe de Vilmorin was a true forerunner to whom all iris lovers should pay tribute.

A glance at these new irises is necessary.


‘Tamerlan' has large flowers with purplish-red petals and darker purplish-blue sepals, marked with bronze on the shoulders and decorated with orange beards. This is a real improvement over irises from the uniformly purple I. trojana or I. cypriana species alone. ‘Tamerlan' was found to be a tetraploid iris.


'Tamerlan'--image by Rick Tasco

The other three varieties introduced that year were triploid irises, i.e. having only three lots of chromosomes, one lot coming from the old variety used in the crossing, the other two brought by the modern iris. Unfortunately, triploid plants were most often sterile, and this is the case for at least two of the three irises involved.


‘Isoline' had pinkish beige petals ringed with cinnamon brown, and purple sepals veined with red near the orange beards. It is still found in some collectors' gardens.  It should be noted that in certain circumstances, despite its triploidy, 'Isoline' proved to be fertile and that at least two of its descendants are known: 'Magnifica' (Vilmorin, 1919) and 'Rhea' (E.B. Williamson, 1928).


It seems that 'Miriam' disappeared a long time ago. It is described as having lilac veined white petals and sepals in the same tones but with wider and darker veins.


As for 'Loute', it was an iris of two shades of violet infused and veined with bronze, named after the dog of a painter friend of Marcel Proust, and well known in artistic circles of the Belle Époque, a dog whose death had deeply troubled its owner. This triploid iris has, it seems, sometimes shown itself to be fertile because they believe pink variety 'Coralie' (Ayres, 1931) is a descendant of it.


All this information was collected by Clarence Mahan and is found in his book.


The Peak Years


The following years saw the Vilmorin-Andrieux iris catalogue being enriched with new varieties obtained by the Vilmorin-Mottet work. We cannot mention them all, but one of them, 'Oriflamme' (1907) became emblematic of the work of Vilmorin. It does indeed have the qualities of size and robustness of its parent 'Amas' and bright and attractive colors, in shades of blue with a white area under the beards. It is one of the basic varieties of modern hybridization.


At the beginning of 1914, Philippe de Vilmorin had already had the idea of organizing a major international iris conference in Paris, but the events that would take place in the following weeks would postpone the realization of this conference for several years. In the meantime, alas, Philippe de Vilmorin died in 1917 and it was his cousin Jacques de Vilmorin who took over the reins of the company.


Jacques de Vilmorin, a dynamic and enterprising young man, certainly did not have Philippe's passion for irises, but he was well aware of the importance of this flower for the reputation and prestige of the House of Vilmorin-Andrieux. He continued the project initiated by Philippe and Mottet but placed it under the leadership of the Société Nationale d'Horticulture.


Finally, the conference took place from May 27th, 1922. It brought together about 60 delegates from France, Great Britain, Switzerland and the United States who met in the SNHF premises. The Société Vilmorin-Andrieux and Jacques de Vilmorin, personally, provided most of the financing.


On May 29th, the participants went to the Vilmorin property. They were welcomed by the entire staff of the company. Séraphin Mottet was also there, although he had recently left his job to become a teacher in a horticultural school a few kilometers away. They visited all the installations, all the garden beds and were particularly amazed by the iris fields where most of the ancient and modern irises produced all over the world were located, as well as all the cultivars introduced by Vilmorin-Andrieux, including those from 1920, which was the richest year, with such remarkable flowers as 'Ambassadeur', 'Ballerine', 'Chasseur', 'Fra Angelico' or 'Magnifica'.


'Magnifica'--image by Mike Lowe


This 1922 conference marked the peak of the Vilmorin family in the field of irises. It was also the swan song. Indeed, with the premature death of Philippe de Vilmorin and the departure of Séraphin Mottet, the great company Vilmorin-Andrieux et Compagnie lost its passion for irises, and no one resumed the hybridization activity.


To quote Clarence Mahan one last time, here is how he talks about the end of the role of the Vilmorin family:

"Vilmorin-Andrieux et Cie was like a great shooting star in the world of irises during the first three decades of the 20th century. The firm appeared in the iris scene suddenly. It enchanted the horticultural world with its splendid large-flowered irises (...). It changed the world of irises forever, and then it was gone. (...) But the name Vilmorin is and will ever be incandescent in the hearts of men and women who love irises. »


(1) Mapie de Toulouse-Lautrec was a journalist, specialist in gastronomy, and creator of many recipes.

(2) Louise de Vilmorin was a writer, screenwriter and friend of artists and jet-set personalities.







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