Monday, May 2, 2011

The Iris Center of the Universe, Revisited

Dr. John K. Small of the New York Botanical Garden was a major figure in the recognition of Louisiana irises. In the late 1920s and 1930s, Small studied native irises in Louisiana and Florida, named over forty species (all rescinded but one) and created a horticultural sensation by publishing gorgeous color plates in the Garden’s journal Addisonia.

As the story goes, Small was traveling from Florida by train when he spotted fields of irises in the then-swampy outskirts of New Orleans. He returned over a number of years and was led by local people to interesting sites to collect and study the wide variety of irises growing wild. The number and diversity of forms and colors he encountered led Small to dub the area around New Orleans “The Iris Center of the Universe.”

A big dose of hyperbole, of course. But the truth in Small’s characterization lay in the variation he found among several species and uncounted natural hybrids in those areas in and around New Orleans where the deltas of natural waterways, the habitat of I. fulva, created higher land in the midst of freshwater marsh where the tall blue I. giganticaerulea made its home. I. brevicaulis was found in the area also, but not widespread; it likes wet soil but slightly higher ground and occurred in pockets here and there. The “Iris Center of the Universe” was a niche where the reds and blues and the recessive whites and yellows could blend and excite the interest of gardeners and scientists alike

Decades of development obliterated the stands of Louisiana iris in the City. New Orleans steadily filled the land and paved the spaces between Lake Pontchartrain and the River, probably an ill-advised step as hindsight attests. Once much of the City must have looked as it did in 1867 when Theodore Lilienthal photographed irises. Now, wild irises can be found only on the periphery, although their predecessors’ genes live on in today’s hybrids.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, no one would have designated New Orleans as a hotbed of iris interest. To be sure, as everywhere in the country, there was a steadily growing recognition of modern Louisiana hybrids. Gardeners increasingly grew them, and Louisianas maintained a presence in public gardens over the years, even if they waxed and waned somewhat with changes in the focus of those in charge.

Since Hurricane Katrina, however, there has been a remarkable surge in interest in Louisiana irises in New Orleans. The storm devastated the City’s public gardens and parks. The lingering brackish water left most an ugly brown and facing major restoration efforts. Suddenly, the appeal of native irises exploded. There was, in fact, a perfect storm of demand and supply, as those working to restore gardens were met by growers in Mooringsport, Schriever, Denham Springs, Slidell and New Orleans willing to donate Louisiana irises by the thousands.

Today, over five years after Hurricane Katrina, it would be a challenge to name a place where more Louisiana irises can be seen. There are major new plantings in the largest public gardens, and in the past year the irises have been introduced into local parks. As the following suggests, the iris future is bright.

Longue Vue House and Garden consists of a classical revival mansion surrounded by an eight acre garden created by New Orleans civic activists and philanthropists Edith and Edgar Stern. The garden development dates from 1934 with a design by Ellen Biddle Shipman, the dean of American women landscape architects.

Divided into garden rooms, the Wild Garden is the site of a winding, hundred-yard "Iris Walk" that displays a newly updated collection of named Louisiana irises.

The original iris planting was established by Caroline Dormon, a prolific writer, multimedia artist, botanist, forester and conservationist, but few irises at Longue Vue today can be traced back to that era. The updated collection includes not only newer registered hybrids, but probably the most extensive collection of species forms in one location in the country, donated by Benny Trahan of Slidell.

Louisiana irises are found in various spots in New Orleans’ 1300-acre City Park, but are concentrated in the New Orleans Botanical Garden, the New Orleans Museum of Art’s Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, and the plantings along Big Lake near the Museum.

The irises are scattered among the diverse plantings in the 12-acre Botanical Garden. Many clusters are old and unlabeled but new cultivars have been added. As part of the Garden’s highly varied and beautifully maintained plantings, the irises do not jump out like they do elsewhere. They provide a view that may be more typical of a home landscape and suggestive of how they can be incorporated into the visitor’s garden.

The five acre Sculpture Garden was opened in November 2003 and was designed to display a permanent collection of over 50 sculptures by twentieth- and twenty-first century American, European, Latin American, Israeli and Japanese artists.

The lagoon in the garden, part of an extensive system that meanders throughout City Park, was originally landscaped with I. pseudacorous. Katrina virtually destroyed them, one of its few positive contributions, and paved the way for the irises rightfully entitled to grace a beautiful New Orleans garden.

Big Lake is also a part of the City Park lagoon system. In the last several years, the periphery was developed with paved walking areas and other features. Large swaths of Louisiana irises are now massed near the edges in several spots. In bloom, they cannot be ignored.

The watery edges of the City Park lagoons are visually the perfect spot to display Louisiana irises. Sadly, the lagoons are connected to the brackish Lake Pontchartrain. When a storm surge pushes in from the Lake, the rise in salinity can damage the irises. After Katrina, a freshwater pump was installed to ameliorate the salty water, but time will tell if Louisianas can grow in a spot that looks like home but may not taste the same. Many have survived so far.

Beyond New Orleans’ major public gardens, Louisiana iris plantings have been completed at Heritage Park in Slidell, Joe Brown Park in New Orleans East, and Brechtel Park on the West Bank. The Town of Jean Lafitte about twenty miles South has a number of places to see Louisiana irises, but the main show there is a boardwalk out into the swamp among the native stands of I. giganticaerulea, growing like they used to throughout the area.

New Orleans may not be the Iris Center of the Universe, but with the developments of the last five years, it is in the hunt.


  1. The iris colors in the first photo of Longue Vue have melted my heart. I must have these irises!

  2. How wonderful that the city has taken this opening resulting from a tragedy to replace an invasive iris with native species and hybrids. The plantings are beautiful.

  3. A very well written article with beautiful photographs. I felt as if I were on the walkways. Thank you

  4. Living in Houston, Texas our weather is very similar to Louisiana, therefore the Louisiana iris do very well in my garden. Each year I add a few more varieties. I have a special love for I. giganticaerulea and I. fulva. They always bloom well each spring and I have not found them to be invasive. Thank you for this article. I had no idea how much the effect of Katrina changed iris cultivation.

  5. Patrick: I have been working on Small’s page in the Iris Encyclopedia. On it, all his iris publications are linked, and if you click on the name of an Iris in Addisonia you can view each of the colored plates. When I get finished there will be an image gallery but for now you can see these as a list on the encyclopedia. Be sure to look at the list in his publications because the first list gives all his irises but I do not have photos for all these yet. Heres the link
    Anyone with images is welcome to add them.