Monday, January 21, 2013

Iris Gardens on San Jose's Bird Avenue

By Bryce Williamson

The history of selling irises to the public in the Santa Clara Valley has a long and illustrious past. There have always been gardens selling irises here.  When I first joined the Clara B. Rees Iris Society, Faye and Othellia Scofield gardened in East San Jose selling irises and herbaceous peonies.  (I was remiss in not learning how they were able to grow peonies, and  all of my efforts have been expensive failures.) By the time I became fully involved in irises, most of the serious iris gardens were found on Bird Avenue in the Willow Glen area.

Clara and Ruth Rees had been growing irises on Bird Avenue since the 1930's and it became a natural extension for Ruth to sell to the public. For many years, her collection of 6 pinks for $5.00 for a standard ad in the San Jose Mercury News around Mother's Day. To get to the gardens, we walked through the small back yard and through a gate with its towering old rose bush. The garden was divided into a series of rooms separated by lattice work. That had the advantage of adding an element of surprise--fixed firmly in my mind is the day I walked beyond one room and into the next, to find a beautiful stalk of 'Swan Ballet'.

To the south was the “field.” Unlike today when most commercial growers reset all their plants each year, varieties in the Rees garden were grown in clumps—here was my first viewing of such classic irises as 'Cliffs of Dover', 'Amigo', and there was always a drift of 'Snow Flurry' in the garden.
'Cliffs of Dover'

'Snow Flurry'

Rees creations include these two irises:

'Light and Lovely' Rees

'Waltzing' Rees 

Bernice Roe was a late addition to Bird Avenue. While the Rees business was mainly carriage trade, Bernice, in my memory, only advertised once for local business and relied on her catalog instead. At one time she sold irises, chrysanthemums, and geraniums on King Road in East San Jose. I've been told that one of her red chrysanthemums was widely used and is a foundation parent for many red varieties in commerce today.  She hybridized some real beauties.

'Soft Contrast' Roe

'Velvet Morning' Roe
Bernice's Bird Avenue house was a gem—apparently built by a craftsman, it had a full basement and attic and special features including windows that dropped out of sight and finish boards that hinged over the unsightly casements. Bernice was always interested in all types of irises—her very good collection of Spurias were against the fences.  She was always finding some new and exotic plant for her yard.

'Fountainflow' Roe

The final iris garden on Bird Avenue was Bill Maryott and Marilyn Harlow's place. Bill purchased one deep lot south of the Rees place and the house next door that had been the Rees field. In many ways, Bill's nursery was the most successful carriage trade garden ever in the valley. Around Mother's Day, cars and visitors would clog the streets for blocks around the garden. Bill, in his limited space, was able to create lovely irises. Bill wisely realized the potential of Knopf's 'West Coast' and used it with great success in creating his oranges. Personally I think his orange line will be his most enduring legacy to the iris world, although 'That's All Folks' has been his biggest award winner.  Bill relocated first to Freedom, California, and then went on to make a successful transition from iris to daylily hybridizing.

'That's All Folks' Maryott Photo by Betty Jacobs

Spring in Maryott's Garden

'Guadalupe' Maryott

'Corona Gold' Maryott
'Pure As Gold' Maryott
Recently I took a ride down memory lane on Bird Avenue. The Rees home is gone, though Bill and Marilyn's house is still there. What was once iris fields has become Iris Court, a street of million dollar homes, and one of the models is called 'Snow Flurry'. Bernice's old house remains, much to my delight, but the backyard has been paved over.  The railroad tracks that ran along the western back of the Maryott-Harlow and Rees properties have been pulled up and there is debate as to what to do with the narrow strip of land. One suggestion has was to turn it into an urban linear parkway with a path for exercise and biking and connect it to the larger trail system that now stretched from Morgan Hill to the bay. Wouldn't it be nice if irises were planted there?

The carriage trade sales of irises have now shifted to the eastern foothills where Nola's Iris Garden is located. Here are the last places in the increasing dense Valley of Heart's Delight where there is room to have a large iris garden.

Nola's Iris Garden in the rolling foothills

If you visit the Willow Glen area and drive past Bird Avenue, close your eyes and imagine the iris farms that used to grace the area.  Perhaps if you concentrate enough, you will smell the perfume that used to waft in the air.


  1. What a lovely, thoughtful posting. I never fail to be impressed by the careful and interesting articles posted by The American Iris Society on its blog. Thank you.

  2. Bryce you did an amazing job of document exactly what did happen. I remember sitting with Ruth Rees and her telling me how they discovered SNOW FLURRY and she took it by streetcar to show Salbach. He bought it from her immediately.

  3. Maryott's garden on Bird Avenue was a highlight of the neighborhood. I lived nearby in the early 90s and loved wandering every spring through that magical field packed with irises, deciding which varieties to add to my garden each year. Those people living on Iris Court have no idea what color and fragrance their homes displaced.

  4. I came across such a large amount of fascinating stuff in your online journal particularly its discourse. From the huge amounts of remarks on your articles, I figure I am not in the slightest the only person having all of the pleasure here! keep doing awesome…commercial property maintenance

  5. The railroad right of way has been turned into a trail - the Three Creeks Trail - and was officially opened in August of 2018. A small section of the Trail behind Iris Court has planted with irises as a tribute to the memory of the Iris Gardens.

  6. Hey yeah I lived next door to that garden. Yes both Clara and Ruths houses were demolished to make way for those expensive homes. Yes it was exciting to see all the visitors to the garden. Hey Bill...

    1. I should mention I admired all the hard work Bill put into his garden. I also enjoyed the fragrance and beauty just a blink away. I will never forget those years and from time to time will googleearth that area and in my mind can live and dwell right there on the very corner where my house (Rees) sat. And can visit the Beamers home virtually, remembering the huge oak tree and the different pines scattered on the property. We had a small tree farm.

  7. It's been years since I walked thru these gardens. My mother in law visited daily during blooming season. She would take her Morning walks and in her final stretch would amble thru the iris gardens on her way home. She shared one of her daily walks with me and brought me to this magical place. It felt like I'd arrived to a fairy garden. Such Beautiful whimsical flowers to be hold. The beauty took my breath away! More importantly it was the sharing of a very personal and beautiful place my mother in law shared with me. It brought insight to a woman who has remained a conundrum for me to understand. This was over 35 years ago yet it remains one of my fondest memories of a woman I love yet could never quite understand. Thank you for posting such an informative and historical article.


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