This classic variety is very tall, easily reaching three feet in my garden. It is hardy everywhere, has excellent growth habits and blooms reliably. The strong stems carry many large blooms beautifully. The flowers themselves are a lovely combination of soft mauve standards over lilac falls, with bright gilded hafts and an orange beard. In shadow it is a somber palette, often being described as having a touch of grey to it, but in sunlight it glows with pink and gold tones. It is one of the masterful creations of E.B. Williamson, of Bluffton, IN, and was introduced in 1926 to wide acclaim. Why such a well regarded iris did not garner higher awards than an Honorable Mention in its introductory year is a mystery.
The Longfield Iris Farm catalog for 1930 describes it as:
"Tall bearded. It is free flowering and vigorous in growth and has been admired without exception by all who have seen it. We believe it will become one of the most popular of all Irises. It has a distinction of carriage and form that will appeal to all Iris lovers. Height 36 inches, stalk well branched, 7 to 11 flowers. Flowers large, 4½ inches high and 5 inches wide. Standards arching cupped; very broadly obovate; Mauvette shading out to yellow at the base. Falls flaring; very broadly wedge shaped; Lilac, haft golden tinged and Maroon veined; beard bright orange. Style branches Mauvette, sides yellow. We have raised many thousand seedlings with Lent A. Williamson as seed parent and of these we have under observation at the present time about 100 varieties. Dolly Madison is our first introduction from this series."
When Mr. Williamson was looking for a name for his new creation its similarity in coloration to another classic iris called 'Quaker Lady' gave the inspiration to name it for the beloved First Lady, who had been raised a Quaker. It was a fine choice and a fitting tribute. 'Dolly Madison' was at the top of the favorites list for many years after it was introduced. It was not only a great all around garden plant, but was used by many hybridizers and became an important variety for later improvements in irises. For instance, it was one of a few varieties that were integral in founding Dave Hall's breeding program that brought us tangerine beards and the famous 'Flamingo pinks'. All of its acclaim and high regards were well deserved, and 'Dolly Madison' remains a true iris classic.
Update: Via Facebook, Jim Morris tells us: "It is interesting to note that although this was supposedly named for President Madison's wife, hybridizer B.F. [sic] Williamson misspelled her first name. She spelled it Dolley not Dolly"