By Mike Unser
Arthur J. Bliss was a surveyor and mining engineer from England. After an early retirement forced on him at age 40 by hearing loss he settled in the small village of Morwellham, Devon, and, at the urging of his friend W.R. Dykes, he took up breeding irises for a hobby. From such ordinary beginnings did come about a revolution that changed the iris world forever. With a scientific approach to plant breeding he created one of the first tetraploid bearded irises to be entered into commerce. A flower of large size, wonderful substance and a rich velvety texture to the falls, it was introduced during wartime at an astronomical price and went on to change irises forever. Despite its well harped upon faults of slow growth and poor branching, it became the basis for a whole new generation of irises, often called the 'Dominion race' at the time. But the garden of Mr. Bliss did not only give us such a renowned prodigy. A stream of wonderful new advances in color, pattern and size came forth from this modest little garden, varieties which continue to delight collectors of historic varieties. Here is a selection of those I am growing. As always, click on the photos to see larger versions.
We'll start with the famous ancestor itself, 'Dominion', introduced in 1917. While today it may appear an ordinary old neglecta it was quite the revolution in its day. Before 'Dominion' irises were shorter, smaller flowered, and more delicate. A tall, thick substanced, richly colored variety was far and away an improvement. It was criticized for its lack of vigor and bunchy branching, but even with these faults it was widely well regarded and used extensively by hybridizers to expand the rainbow of our favorite flower.
'Cardinal' was a nice advancement in the 'Dominion' line, this time in shades of red-violet. Widely used in the breeding of early reds, it is a fantastic iris even by today's standards. Introduced in 1919 it took the velvet texture and deep coloring to new heights. The form is flawless with wide flaring falls and translucent standards that light up like stained glass yet still manage to stay upright. A decade after its introduction it was still considered one of the finest irises in the world and supply could not keep up with demand.
'Clematis' is a flower of an entirely different sort. Introduced in 1917, it is a low growing light lavender blue with some deeper veining. Very floriferous, it starts early and stays late. It gets its name from the tendency of the blooms formed in warm weather to sport six falls and no standards, giving an open flat, clematis-like bloom. Buds formed during cool weather retain the classic iris form.
The variegata class was often set back by small flowers, short height and washy colors. Mr. Bliss set out to change this and one of his best is 'Marsh Marigold'. Introduced in 1925 it gave good garden presence on its 30 inch stems topped with blooms of bright dense yellow and velvety red falls edged the same golden yellow.
From 1920 comes Mr. Bliss' 'Mystic'. Early white irises were rarely a pure white and were often marred with prominent haft colors and markings. 'Mystic' was a nice change in that it was a pure icy white with just faint traces of veining at the hafts. Not the tallest of varieties, it reaches about 2 feet in my garden.
1924 brought the introduction of 'Pioneer', a variety of great height and large flowers in a dramatic color tone. It was very popular as a garden plant due to its many blooms and long flowering period, but did not fulfill Mr. Bliss' hopes of being a new break in breeding as 'Dominion' was.
'Senlac', introduced in 1929, was a very highly touted variety. One of the best of the early red varieties it had height, large flowers, great performance and hardiness to help it along. It was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic for many years.
The quest for pink irises started early and many were brought forth but few lived up to their hype. 'Susan Bliss', however, came very close to being a true pink and was justly popular for it. It helped that it was a strong grower and good bloomer with nice branching and lovely flowers.
'Sweet Lavender' was introduced in 1919 and was another popular variety for gardeners at large. It brings mid-size flowers of a lavender bitone on very tall stems. The blooms are pert and flaring with ruffling on the standards - one of the earliest to feature this trait. The jaunty aspect of the flower is matched by its lovely sweet fragrance and it is well worth growing today.
On the smaller side we have Mr. Bliss' 'Tom Tit' from 1919. A short variety at 18" with deep purple blooms (my photo does not do it justice!). A clump in full bloom is a sight to see - masses of dark flowers shining with a satin finish in the sun. The flower had good flare to it making it particularly attractive given its short height.
Amoenas have always been a popular pattern for iris lovers and Mr. Bliss gave us to wonderful 'Tristram' in 1919. The standards are a beautiful clear white over falls deeply reticulated with dark purple veins. A shorter variety, as almost all early amoenas were, it nevertheless gives a nice display at the end of the iris season.
From his humble little garden far from the mainstream of horticulture Arthur J. Bliss created a legacy few other hybridizers can match. His devotion to a scientific approach to plant hybridizing set the stage for many advances of his own and from others who followed in his footsteps. It has long been said his 'Dominion' was the most important iris variety in history, but his other milestones are just as worthy of note. The varieties the vagaries of time have left us with to preserve are still well worth having as garden plants. The next time you're in your iris patch admiring the velvety texture of a particularly beautiful bloom give a little thought to the man who brought this trait to us.
You can find more information about Arthur J. Bliss and his history making irises at: www.blissiris.co.uk