Monday, April 1, 2013

Jim McWhirter: An Iris Eye for Style

By Bryce Williamson  

When iris season starts, as it is about to do in Northern California, I find I miss Jim McWhirter not only for his stylish irises, but even more because he was so much fun.  He not only had an eye for good irises, but also for decorating and collecting. He helped me to become me addicted to collecting iris artifacts, though I never had the luck he had in discovering wonderful antiques with iris motifs.

Jim McWhirter and his partner, Don Denney, first appeared at a Spring Regional Convention in 1972. They had become interested in irises and, in the company of Frances and Larry Gaulter and Vi and Walt Luihn, came down for the Sunday events at the meeting. Soon thereafter, they found a delightful old Victorian cottage on acreage in Hayward where they could grow irises. They revived the name Cottage Gardens, which had been first used by Ethel and George Johnson.  By the 1978 National, they had seedlings ready for introduction. At that meeting, the AIS was introduced to Jim McWhirter's iris eye for style.

Jim's first truly famous introduction was 'Tequila Sunrise', a cross of Plough's 'Amigo's Guitar' to a Gaulter seedling (Jim's connection to the Gaulters would last the lifetimes of Larry and Frances).

'Tequila Sunrise'
Jim's first big award winner with the aptly named 'Brandy' from the wide cross of 'Warlord' and 'Pink Sleigh'. It would go on to win an Award of Merit and was on the Dykes runner-ups list as long as it was eligible. Other hybridizers would appreciate the diverse genetic makeup of 'Brandy' and used it in hybridizing.

Cottage Gardens would later move to Sebastopol.  But Sebastopol, despite the connection to Luther Burbank, proved to be a poor place to grow irises and threw Jim's hybridizing off.   As a result, he moved to Wilton for the superior climate, and released a wide blue-white out of Opal Brown's 'Light Fantastic' X to Larry Gaulter’s 'Carriage Trade'. Jim had the seedling for many years—we had all long admired its wonderful ruffled and wide form—but Jim had keep it back from commerce due to its tight branching. He finally released it as 'Winterscape', a name I suggested to him. That was a wise move, as the tight branching did not pass to its children and 'Winterscape' became a wonderful parent for others, including hybridizers Duane Meek and Joe Gatty.

By the time of his death, Jim was becoming increasingly interested in whites and blues. 'America's Cup' was an Award of Merit winner for him and I still grow two of his later whites, 'Helen Cochran' and 'Mother Marshmallow'. By that point, Cottage Gardens had moved into the old Keppel garden in Stockton and was called Stockton Gardens.

'America's Cup'
I always liked his 'Great Gatsby', even better than 'World Premier', and continue to grow it for its velvet finished falls.

"Great Gatsby"
Once a hybridizer dies, their irises often fall out of commerce.  Jim's irises are no exception. Every once and a while, though, I find 'Tequila Sunrise' listed in general garden catalogues or in the the boxes of irises that magically appear in the local nurseries in August.  Sadly, I can't find a single garden still listing the metallic violet 'Holly Golightly' (Jim had wanted to name it Elizabeth Taylor, but Taylor wanted money for the right to use her name).

'Holly Golightly'
Aside from his own hybridizing program, Jim also selected Don Denney's last introductions. As a matter of fact,  Jim and Abram Feuerstein took on the last of the Gaulter seedlings and released the last Gaulter introduction, 'Alexander's Ragtime Band', which went on to win an Award of Merit. It's a shame that Jim died so early, for I'm certain that when Virginia Messick passed on, there were still some seedlings worthy of introduction, and if Jim had lived, he would have used his eye for style to find, name, and introduce them.  I miss Jim for his fun personality and for his iris eye for style, and I am happy to have his irises to remember him by.


  1. Larry and Frances Gaulter are my Great Aunt and Uncle!

    1. One of my favorite irises is by your illustrious relative: Persian Berry!

    2. The Gaulters were my grandparents.