Monday, November 18, 2013

Hybridizer Profile: Chad Harris of Mt. Pleasant Iris Farm

By Renee Fraser

The highest award given to a Japanese iris (Iris ensata) is the Payne Medal, and this year it was awarded to the iris "Bewitching Twilight" by this column's featured hybridizer, Chad Harris of Mt. Pleasant Iris Farm in Washington State.  

Chad describes himself as a natural gardener with no formal training.   He is a fanatic for form, structure, and texture of the plant in whole.  For Chad,  "the bloom is just the icing on the cake.  I am a nut for the textural form of a plant, that is the way that I have landscaped the last two homes.  I think first what shape, color of leaf, how tall and wide the plant gets at maturity.  Then I think on bark, berries, flowers, fragrance, and the timing of each as a visual point in the garden.  Also you have to think about sun, water, and soil, and with this information your plant list for a particular spot can be narrowed down.  Mind you that this starts with the skyline, and canopy of the trees. So you can see that I shop for a plant to fill a spot, I don't buy a plant and try to figure out were to plant it."  

Excellent advice for all gardeners.  And look at the results!
Garden of Chad Harris
Garden of Chad Harris

As Chad points out, Iris ensata has two different foliage forms, upright and fountain, and so it is well-suited to many different garden needs.

As is the case with so many of us, Chad's early interest in irises was encouraged by his grandparents.  He visited public gardens with his grandmothers, and there he was exposed to the exotic Japanese irises. Years later he searched everywhere for this plant to use in landscaping a home garden, recalling that they would add much needed upright grass-like texture, as well as bloom between the spring Rhododendrons and the summer Roses and Fuchsias. That long summer search thirty years ago (before the Internet!) finally led him to Aitken’s Salmon Creek Gardens.  Terry Aitken did not sell Japanese Irises, but he kindly gave him one named variety and two seedlings by Walter Marx, and he referred Chad to another irisarian growing this elusive iris- Lorena Reid.  

After these visits to iris farms, and with the instruction of Terry and Lorena, Chad began to dab pollen using the irises he grew in his small city garden.  After a few Iris Conventions, he progressed from dabb(l)ing to developing a hybridizing program with goals.  Chad's first goals were focused on the extension of the bloom time, by using very early blooming plants and plants that bloom for a long time with good sequence, where a bloom shrivels up and gets out of the way before the next bud starts to open.  Chad believes this to be a very desirable trait that hybridizers and growers should watch for. 

Chad says " ‘Pleasant Earlybird,’ (1996) though simple in flower form, was one of my first introductions that conforms to these ideals. When grown well it has a very early bloom and a long continuation with one to two branches, carrying five to seven buds per stem."  He notes that "this plant in the cool NW marine climate can be in color for four to five weeks." 
'Pleasant Earlybird'

‘Coho’ (2005) was also introduced for its early bloom season, with five to seven buds per stem.  Personally, I am smitten with this pure pink, a color hard to come by in the more common tall bearded irises.

Chad moved from the city to a country farm 18 years ago, which gave him the space to be able to expand his hybridizing goals.  He has been working on an ever-blooming Iris ensata for cooler coastal climates.  Although he has had success with seedlings that would bloom all summer and fall until the killing freeze of winter, the blooms were contorted and would not open properly.  He  "out crossed" to a different line, and by 2012, good flower form and summer-long bloom resulted!  Chad cautions that "only time in the garden will tell if these plants will be introduced as garden-worthy reblooming plants."  
007JB/07JBa Seedlings

Iris ensata comes in many flower forms, and one that Chad has worked on with great success is the nine to twelve fall or peony form (my favorite!).
‘Blushing Snowmaiden’ 2000
‘Amethyst Actress’ 2009
'Amethyst’s Sister’ 2012

He has also expanded his breeding program to include a multi-style arm form.  ‘Angelic Choir’ 2006, ‘Artesian Spring’ 2010, and 'Dalle Whitewater’ 2010, have been introduced, and he has several seedlings which are also being "lined out" for possible introduction.   Chad finds this form very pleasing:  "the full round six fall flower form is very much enhanced by a tight cluster of style arms in the center of the bloom creating a pom-pom, instead of the normal three open style arms." 
'Angelic Choir’
‘Artesian Spring’
'Dalle Whitewater’

Chad likes all of the flower forms, and he has also worked with plants that have three falls, sometimes called a single flower. ‘Freckled Peacock’ 2002, ‘Cascade Rain’ 2008, and seedling that is being watched for introduction (from the 08JD cross) that is a rich mid-blue self are below.  Just look at that blue!
‘Freckled Peacock’
‘Cascade Rain’
08JD cross

Chad says "perhaps one of the hardest things is to come up with is a new flower color. I am attempting to bring a soft cream yellow into the bloom, not unlike Dr. McEwen’s Siberian ‘Butter and Sugar’‘Bewitching Twilight’ 2000, was the first to show this, however, it only does this when the sun is weak like here in the Pacific Northwest.  Each generation has been getting brighter creams in the style arms. What is intriguing me is the fact that the yellow signal is starting to bleed down the falls, thus creating a wash of cream. I am also starting to observe this coloring on the undersides of the falls."  
'Bewitching Twilight'
Creamy yellow seedlings

For further novelty in color, Chad is also working with the rayed pattern (when the veins are lighter than the falls) both in the blue-violet and the red-violet color tones that Iris ensata is known for. 
'Sunrise Ridge' 2007; 08JE/09JL Seedling

Chad is also beginning to breed new species of irises, including Iris laevigata and Species-X.

Iris laevigata is related to Iris ensata, and it is also a water-loving iris.  Chad finds that it can have lower water needs in the garden than Iris ensata, however.  He believes this may be due to the rhizome growth of Iris laevigata, which is more horizontal (enabling it to send out roots to new soils).  Chad points out that the rhizome of Iris laevigata is also twice to three times the size of Iris ensata and probably able to hold more moisture during dry periods.  Blooming a month before Iris ensata, Iris laevigata, like Iris ensata, comes in both the red-violet and blue-violet tones along with Alba or white.

In 2012, Mt Pleasant Iris Farm introduced its first laevigata, a breathtaking flower called ‘Lakeside Ghost’.   ‘Blue Rivulets’, introduced in 2013, has striking blue veins on a white ground.  Others are dark reds, 07LAK2, bright blues, 07LAK4, very wide whites, 07LAL2, and a six fall white, 02LA2, that has the upright bloom stem (02LA2 plant) habit that Chad is working for in this Asian species of iris.  Look at the statement made by that clump!
‘Lakeside Ghost’
‘Blue Rivulets’
02LA2 Clump

Another exciting development is Chad's work with a new Species-X plant that has lovely lime green foliage.   Chad says that "in the Pacific Northwest with our weak spring sun, we have found that these Species-X plants have very bright yellow foliage due to the lack of chlorophyll.  Being a foliage gardener myself I find that these plants are beautiful in and out of bloom, and will work wonderfully in the NW landscape with our dark gray spring skies. The down side is that most of the plants burn badly with our first strong summer sun, usually in mid-July. They do, however, eventually grow out of this burn stage with light lime-green foliage, but look bad for a good two weeks.   There are a very few (one in one hundred to two hundred) that do not burn, it is these plants that we will be looking at to possibly introduce in the near future.  Our thanks to Dr. Shimizu of Japan for finding ‘Gubijin’ that will cross with Iris ensata."   

I know that I usually get the hybridizer to choose a favorite flower, but Chad could not decide, so he chose a favorite cross.  Since he likes to share his results with others, this was a great idea.  His favorite cross in thirty years is 'Night Angel' x 'Frosted Intrigue'."   Here are the gorgeous results of that cross, reading from left to right, top to bottom:  'Artesian Spring', 'Columbia Deep Water', Seedling 02JC13, Seedling 08JE1, 'Dalle Whitewater', Seedling 08JE, and Seedling 08JE d.

Do Iris ensata grow in your zone?  Which of these beauties would you most like to try?  Or perhaps you would like to see more.  If so, you can see and read more at and at the Society for Japanese Irises website.


1 comment:

  1. Excellent article, Renee! I love Iris ensata and plan to add a few to my landscapes. I especially loved the photos of his favorite cross "Night Angel x Frosted Intrigue."


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...