Monday, April 20, 2015

The Open and Flaring Form Among Louisiana Irises

By Patrick O'Connor

Bigger is better?  Fatter flowers are superior to skinny ones?  Not necessarily when it comes to Louisiana irises, at least not officially, and not in the view of many devotees of these plants.  Wisely, the AIS Handbook for Judges asserts that none of the recognized flower forms among Louisiana irises are unacceptable and none are superior to the others.  We are allowed to have personal favorites, of course.

Ron Killingsworth’s excellent blog post in November 2012 covered the wide range of forms found among Louisiana irises.  If one looks at the latest introductions, it might appear that hybridizers have mostly abandoned anything reminiscent of the open form characteristic of the five Louisiana species and the many natural hybrids found in the wild.  Ron gave them their due, but I want to double down on the virtues of these flowers and argue that modern hybridizers should rediscover their merits. 

Iris giganticaerulea

Iris fulva
All of the five species of Louisiana iris have an open form and each makes its contribution.  We can thank I. fulva and I. nelsonii for red and yellow.  Fulva usually has drooping petals that are rarely a model for flower form, although if not taken to an extreme, an umbrella of color can be quite pretty.  The flower of Iris giganticaerulea is most appealing to me.  It flares elegantly upon opening, with its petals pointing both laterally and skyward, creating an airy, graceful shape.

Hybridizers, present company included, have not worked much to improve flaring, open-form Louisiana irises.   From the time of the discovery of the first fuller-flowered Louisianas in the wild, there has been a headlong movement toward the wide-petaled cultivars that are predominant today.  Such features as ruffling and edging have been an added focus in recent years.  This is not to complain about the progress made – the results have been beautiful – and past work has incorporated many other traits of value, such as better substance, floriferousness, and shape of stalk.  But I would like to at least whisper, “Whoa!  Let’s not forget the natural history and heritage of these plants.” 

'Black Widow' (MacMillan, 1953).  A classic and still popular Louisiana iris exhibiting an open form.  Photo by Linda Trahan.
'Dixie Deb' (Chowning, 1950).  Another old and open Louisiana cultivar.  Also a vigorous grower and a good garden iris.

In sifting through iris pictures in search of good examples of open, flaring cultivars, it is striking the extent to which they are mostly old and not far removed from the stock found in the wild in Louisiana.  To the extent that newer introductions of this type exist, they tend to come from hybridizers in Louisiana where the reminders of the irises’ natural history are still vividly in evidence along the roadways and in the wetlands. Sometimes, admittedly, the development of a worthy iris of flaring, open form has been incidental to other objectives, but some recent examples can still serve to show the potential.

'Who's Ya Mama' (Musacchia, 2014)
'N'Orleans Flambeaux' (R. McSparrin, 2013)
There are challenges to any hybridizer intent on developing improved Louisianas with an open, flaring form.  For all the beauty of wild irises, they exhibit some undesirable traits, particularly poor substance.  A wild iris flower will not last nearly as long in the garden as most of the modern hybrids.  It will be necessary to address more characteristics than just flower shape if the open, flaring form is to become and remain a popular option among Louisiana iris lovers.

'Cocodrie' (O'Connor, 2013)
'Twisted Sister' (O'Connor, 2003)
'Sunshine Bridge' (O'Connor, 2001)
Louisiana irises have been seriously hybridized for a little over a half century and, given the changes wrought, one can only imagine (and perhaps a little bit fear) what the future might bring.  The genetic potential apparently exists to shape these flowers into forms unimaginable today.  In another fifty years, perhaps they could all look like tropical hibiscus if hybridizers put their tweezers to the task. 

Hopefully not.  An open flower will present fewer square inches of color and may not look as impressive as an overlapping and frilly one when printed on a page or projected on a screen. The true test will be in the garden where poise and grace may get more credit.  

Gardeners most value the images they see live in the landscape.  I am confident that graceful Louisiana irises can fill many a bed if we maintain their connection to the natural world..                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

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