Sunday, July 10, 2011

Want to Hybridize? Read, Observe, Listen and Learn

Visitors to our gardens and to iris shows often are surprised to learn that new varieties of irises are raised from seeds. “Oh,” they exclaim, “how do you do that?

I recently had the gratifying experience of showing a young boy how to hybridize. He had come to the garden with his mother while I was making crosses, was thoroughly interested, grasped everything instantly, and was eager to try. I suggested that he pick out a couple of flowers that he’d like to cross. We made several crosses of the same flowers, just to be sure. Two of the crosses produced pods, and he and his mother returned to harvest the seeds. Since they didn’t yet have a bed prepared for planting at their house, we agreed that I would plant the seeds in pots over the winter. This spring, a goodly number of the seeds germinated, and the lad was able to take home a couple of pots of sprouts to put in their new bed. Since his mother is a master gardener, she could take the process from there.

So far, so good. Now he knows the mechanics of hybridizing, and his mother will ensure that the sprouts get the proper care. But whether he will ever produce “good” irises is still a matter of some luck and yet more learning.

Getting started

Fairly frequently, one hears a hybridizer admit that, in the beginning, “I didn’t know what I was doing.”

The following are some random observations intended to be helpful to readers who may be at that same stage and would like to get beyond it.

Find a mentor

If one is interested in hybridizing, the opportunity to learn directly from a hybridizer in the person’s own garden is a great advantage. I was lucky to be able to learn from Earl Roberts, of median irises renown, in Indianapolis in the early 1970s. Earl was generous with his knowledge as well as with his “extra” rhizomes. From him I learned the basics of planting and care of cultivars, making crosses, harvesting and germination of seeds and lining out of sprouts.


As soon as possible, I joined the American Iris Society, where I could discuss with and ask questions of more knowledgeable irisarians and profit from the various presentations, shows and garden tours that membership in a local chapter provides.


I also picked up all of the iris books I could find, studying the histories of different species and varieties and their traits, and focusing especially on the development of certain patterns that I found particularly attractive.

Selecting breeding stock

Meantime, I was making crosses among the irises that I had and adding to my original stock through purchase, trading and the sheer generosity of fellow irisarians, certain varieties that I wanted to use in breeding.


If a hybridizer had unlimited acreage, money and time, he might be tempted, like one of Stephen Leacock’s Nonsense Novels heroes, to ride madly off in all directions. But, since most of us find ourselves constrained in one or more of these categories, it helps to develop goals that fit our circumstances. For many, if not most of us, our goals evolve as we begin hybridizing – they may be of color, pattern, branching, height, foliage, marketability, whatever, but focusing on desired outcomes gives some discipline to our activity and, arguably, increases the odds of producing something pleasing. And this brings us to the matter of what constitutes a “good” iris.


The American Iris Society states that it "exists for the sole purpose of promoting the culture and improvement of the Iris." This embodies both the assumption that the iris can be improved and the assertion that it should be. What constitutes improvement immediately becomes material for dispute, because, unlike a utilitarian product such as a new machine, which either works better or doesn't, a flower, like art, is produced primarily for enjoyment and its appeal is subject to individual tastes. The application of standards, in such circumstances, is challenging, but inevitable.


In that regard , one can hardly do better than to get a copy of the AIS’ Handbook for Judges and Show Officials, 2007 and frequently consult pages 54 through 64, which treat of garden judging of tall bearded irises. (There are similar sections for other types of irises.) These are the standards of AIS. An iris that meets these standards should be “good”. Whether any given new iris constitutes an “improvement” on already-existing varieties is material for another discussion.

Get moving

See other gardens. Hybridizers can learn much from attendance at regional conventions, which offer the opportunity to take part in judges training, and particularly, garden judges training. The iris is, after all, a garden plant, and growth habits not apparent on the show bench or in photos are important when making decisions as to what to acquire for one’s breeding program.

Welcome critics

Blessed is the hybridizer whose garden is visited by judges and other hybridizers. One of the most important aids to hybridizing is to have one’s flowers critiqued by others. Helpful suggestions will often be made, and a guest may be very taken by a seedling to which the hybridizer has paid scant attention. Serious faults found will save time and energy that might have been spent on a “dead end”. A caution, though. If the criticism isn’t that the plant is flawed, but that it doesn’t represent an improvement, then, just as with doctors, a second opinion may be advisable.

The public

I also pay close attention to what garden visitors like, whether they are “knowledgeable” about irises or not.

Show time

The budding hybridizer should not be shy. If a seedling seems promising, it should be taken to the show. Let the judges make the call.

Be a clerk

Finally, if I were asked to say what has been the most valuable single thing in my development as a hybridizer, I would say clerking – clerking at as many iris shows as possible. The opportunity to silently accompany and assist the judges as they examine and discuss the entries enables one to identify the strengths and weaknesses looked for in flowers, as well as to observe the preferences of the judges (including the biases and idiosyncracies of some). Frequent clerking also provides one with exposure to a very broad range of cultivars. And, last, it offers excellent opportunities for character building if one has entries in the show – gritting one’s teeth and keeping silence, for instance, as a judge disparages one’s prized seedling.

Though admittedly brief and sketchy, I hope this has been helpful.


  1. Love a man who uses the word "goodly."

  2. Good post. Enjoyed it. I never thought about clerking as an aid to a hybridizer, but it makes perfect sense. I was able to overcome a total failure of mechanics in my first year. I put the pollen in the wrong place; those drawings just weren't clear enough. But I got some nice seedlings from bee pods to keep me interested and had the encouragement of an outstanding mentor in Frank Chowning. Lots of good advice in this post.


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