Monday, August 19, 2013

Stricken by Irises

By Bryce Williamson

You grow to love some irises over time, but others strike you upon first viewing.  In my case, two of the times I was immediately stricken by the beauty of an iris were in Clara and Ruth Rees's gardens.

I gained my love of velvet-falled irises from seeing their huge clump of "Amigo", an exceptionally beautiful flower.
"Amigo" Courtesy of Mike Lowe from original HIPS website

Another time, I rounded the lattice-work that defined a "room" in their home garden, and found a lovely stalk of "Swan Ballet", showing off why it won the Dykes Medal.
"Swan Ballet" Photo by author

"Swan Ballet" is an important iris in other ways besides being merely beautiful: it won the Dykes Medal, its child "Pacific Panorama" won the Dykes for Neva Sexton, and a child of "Pacific Panorama." "Shipshape," won the Dykes for Stafford Babson.  (I only know of one other example of three generations of irises winning the Dykes:  "Pink Taffeta,"Vanity", and "Beverly Sills.")

"Pacific Panorama" photo by Roland Dejoux

"Shipshape" photo by Colleen Modra

Another iris that struck me the first time I saw it was "Helen McGregor" in the garden of Mrs. Hobbs in Orland, California. She grew mainly older varieties in long rows stretching out through her pecan grove. With a little luck we would also find some of Truman Capote's “windfall pecans” while viewing the flowers.
"Helen McGregor"  Photo by Bluebird Haven Iris Garden
"Helen McGregor" impressed me as so very blue and I was later pleased to find that almost all of the very best current “true” blues go back to this variety.

"Anon" photo by Country Delight Iris
Jim Gibson's wonderful iris (and wonderful parent) "Anon" is stuck in my mind from the San Diego National Iris Convention where it was growing in Archie Owen's yard by a lemon tree. I knew that I had to have this distinctive variety instantly, and I grew it for many years. In one of the great mysteries of iris growing, "Anon" really liked the town of Campbell—it would bloom 10 inches taller here than for Bill Maryott who was just 5 miles away.

The last time I saw Jim Gibson was at a Porterville Regional Iris Tour, at the home of George and Margaret Sutton.  Sprung from his retirement at the rest home, he graced us with his presence and knowledge.  We had a good talk, but it was a little sad to hear him say "I only can make crosses in my mind anymore."  That was the last time I saw the kind man who produced so many lovely and famous flowers. For those of you who are unfamiliar with his work, he was very famous for producing glorious diversity in plicatas.

Are there any irises that struck you from the first time you saw them?  I hope you do- please feel free to tell us about them in the comments section.


This will be my last scheduled post for the blog, but I will occasionally be back as a guest blogger.  I have a few final words about the world of irises.

First, I have enjoyed giving you the history of my local iris society on this blog. When I learned that my local society, The Clara B. Rees Iris Society, had only one picture of Clara, I grew a bit concerned about the loss of history in the world of irises.  This is partly my own fault—I could have and should have done a better job in my younger years taking pictures of people and gardens and preserving them for posterity.  So please, take photos and record the history you are in the process of making in the iris world.

Second, my life has been immeasurably enriched by visiting the iris gardens of others.  Sometimes, though, I worry that fewer people are visiting the gardens of other iris growers and gardeners. How can anyone expand a healthy and thriving iris collection if they don't see the newer varieties in real life? I encourage everyone to get out, meet the interesting people growing irises, and see what the flower looks like in their gardens. Furthermore, hybridizers used to send their seedlings around the country before introduction to test them in various climates. There has been a decline in that practice, which concerns me, since it is a healthy practice for the production of good garden irises.  I'd like to encourage hybridizers who have not tried this to begin, and to thank those who do.

Third, as gardening and agriculture have become more commercial, we are finding that new garden chemicals are not tested on irises; moreover, we don't seem to have many iris growers of a scientific bent who are willing to do that testing.  It's expensive, and of course, a whole post could be written about the horrible effect of the current US depression on iris gardens and plant nurseries in general.  Ten years ago who would have believed that a famous name such as Cooley's Gardens would be closed?  Consider sharing your experiences with these new chemicals and methods with others so that we can continue to enjoy irises for many years to come.

Napa County Iris Gardens, photo by the author

Finally, when I first started growing irises, irises were the favorite perennial in the country. That is not the case today, sadly. With so many fine qualities all of the iris species need to regain their rightful places as pre-eminent American perennials. Toward than end, I am proud to have served on this blog to help re-popularize this magnificent flower.


  1. Excellent closing comments.

  2. Wonderful comments. George and Margret Sutton have moved from California and left the Central Valley. Spring just isn't the same. I even miss my garden which is too shady for anything to grow and the weeds are much worse to try and work with.

    1. Sadly, both George and Margaret died this spring, both after long illnesses. Their son and extended family has moved the iris business to Idaho and should be up there replanting now.

  3. Bryce, I appreciate your comments regarding chemicals. I see several reasons why gardeners who do use chemicals are hesitant to share their results with others. First, labels and restrictions change frequently, and vary state-to-state. What is legal in Texas may be illegal in California, and what is legal in June may be illegal by September! Second, using a product "off label" is against federal law. If a gardener does identify a product is beneficial to irises, perhaps through accidental overspray from contiguous plants (for example, because irises are planted by roses or irises are planted by daylilies), it is still illegal to purposefully spray irises with that product (unless irises are specifically listed on the label). I understand laws are here to protect the environment and the gardener, but sometimes they really do complicate things beyond reason!


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