Monday, February 6, 2012

Clara and Ruth Rees: San Jose's Iris Pioneers

     Much as been written about Clara Rees' fortuitous cross of a diploid and a tetraploid that produced the important parent Snow Flurry. For that reason, there is little reason for me to rehash that part of the story in this blog. Instead, I thought I would share some other memories of Clara and Ruth Rees, two sisters that were iris pioneers in San Jose.  If you do not know the story of 'Snow Flurry,' Mike 's blog will give you the details here.
'Snow Flurry'--
Clara B. with Snow Flurry in the small garden behind the house before 1964--image from The Clara B. Rees Iris Society.
      I first met Clara Rees when I interviewed her for a sophomore English class research paper. As a retired English teacher, I shutter to think of trying to force today's sophomores to actually write a research paper, but tangents do not tell the Rees story.
Left to right: Keith Keppel, Clara B. Rees, Ruth Rees, and Glenn Corlew--Photo from Region 14 Fall Bulletin 1964
     By the time I became interested in irises, Ruth was the person with the deeper interest in them. Clara loved plants, all plants, and she was a putter. She puttered with this plant and that plant—she grew lovely amaryllis and by the garage she had created a strain of true lilies that grew and bloomed year after year; that was and would be today a real accomplishment since true lilies in this Mediterranean climate are lovely the first year, iffy the second, and by the third, they have disappeared.
     Clara herself was self-effacing and shy. Always diffident to others, she was rarely seen in the garden during bloom season and Ruth would twist her arm to get her to make a few crosses each year. When I was in the garden, occasionally Clara would come fetch me and take me to see her latest interesting bloom—often it was a lovely amaryllis on the front porch. On very rare occasions, I was invited into the kitchen for milk or hot chocolate and cake or another dessert that Clara had baked. Those were very rare occasions.
     Ruth's role in the 'Snow Flurry' story is well documented since she took the blossom to Berkeley by light rail (a sad commentary, today, about the decline of public transportation in our area). Ruth ran the garden which was spread out over several deep lots on Bird Avenue in San Jose. Each year Ruth placed a Mother's Day ad—6 pink irises for $5.00 and several times I had a hand in digging the plants, preparing them, and having them ready for that two day sale.
     My understanding is that Ruth had worked for the government during World War II in public relations and into the 1970's she ran her own successful PR firm out of the historic Security Building on 1st Street in San Jose. The one time I visited her office, the building had become shabby, but it managed to survive the demolitions that destroyed too much of SJ and the building has now been restored to its century-old splendor.
     Sometime before I became involved, Ruth had pontificated that NO one in Santa Clara County should introduce iris until Clara was no longer around. It was, of course, a silly pronouncement that had been ignored, though it had cause hard feelings.
AIS Bulletin Image
     About the time my garden was first opened for a spring regional, my mother decreed that the 40 foot long bed in the front yard needed to be planted all is Snow Flurry. While Ruth always had a huge drift of Snow Flurry in the back of the garden, she was, nevertheless, hard pressed to come up with sufficient plants. In the spring, Snow Flurry was is in good bloom. From thereafter, when I visited Ruth in the early spring, Ruth would always cut a bouquet of camellia flowers from the massive bush in the front yard and have me take the flowers to my mother.
     After Clara's death, Ruth continued the nursery for a number of years and introduced the last of Clara's hybrids including the horribly named Clara's Black. While she had insisted that no one introduce until Clara's death, she ultimately became very proud of the new generation of hybridizers in the area. She even had a protegee—Ed Sellman. Ed had some lovely irises, but they never caught on with the AIS crowd. During the years, I sold 1000s of plants of his lovely Modern Venus; Bill Maryott, when he sold to the carriage trade from his nursery adjacent to the Rees property, sold lots of King's Pick to the public; and I was delighted last year to see Napa Country Iris Gardens still selling a Sellman iris, African Nights, a sure sign that it is popular with the public.
Ed Sellman's 'African Nights'--Napa Country Iris image used by permission
     As age and death tightened the circle of Ruth's friends, Ruth seemed indestructibility. She always had a new car—not a new car in the normal sense, but a new car from one of her circle of friends who could no longer drive and the car itself would be 10 or more years old with low mileage on it—it had been driven twice a week, once to church and once to the store.
      Even after Ruth had a major stroke and could not talk, she continued to be a scrapper. At first her rehab had her living with a family near Alma Street and she would be found pushing her walker, block after block on the street; later when she returned home, she would be seen out walking back and forth in what was left of the garden.
      After her death, the house was empty for several years and then one spring, Bill Maryott and Marilyn Harlow were helping garden visitors when the realized one of the women had a stack of iris materials: the niece and nephew had started a garage sale that morning and put out iris books, Bulletins, and other materials. When Bill and Marilyn went over, little was left. To this day it is a mystery what happened to Clara's Hybridizier's Medal; Ruth had a first edition Dykes The Genus Iris and she had always said that it would be left to the Clara B. Rees Iris Society when she died, but the book never arrived. Years later Jack Alvarez was able to trade irises for the plaque Region 14 had given Clara for 'Snow Flurry.'  The image of Clara in this blog with 'Snow Flurry,' sadly, is the only picture of Clara left in the Clara B. Rees Iris Society materials.


  1. Great article, Bryce. They must have been quite a pair in their day. So sad about their iris materials drifting away at a garage sale. All the more reason to remind our older members to make sure to make arrangements with their family members, or even stipulate it in their will, that the iris materials be preserved. If not by valued by the family they should be donated to their local society or the AIS or HIPS for their archives/libraries/yearly auctions. Make sure your treasures are preserved, folks!

  2. I am constantly surprised at the loss of iris materials. Too many things lost over time and that has been a theme of my posts. I still cannot find a picture of either of the Knopfs...

  3. Indeed this is a very knowledgeable post. I really appreciate all the efforts you put on your blog. Keep on posting for more.


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