Monday, November 16, 2015

Feeling The Blues

By Patrick O'Connor

If you are bored with blue, you might want to move on to greener, or more psychedelic, pastures.  This post is just about the pursuit of pale blue tones in Louisiana iris hybrids.  Kevin Vaughn calls them “icy” blue, and the color has intrigued several hybridizers.
In a way it is odd that it would be necessary to hustle after pale blue Louisiana hybrids since the color is found within the natural range of the blue species, I. giganticaerulea, I. brevicaulis, and, possibly, I. hexagona.  There are rare white forms of each, of course, and the intensity of the predominant blue color sometimes shades gradually toward white.
I don’t know much about the East Coast I. hexagona, but I have seen native stands of brevicaulis in Louisiana that exhibit a considerable range of blue hues within a short distance.  A case in point is a light blue in Gary Babin’s yard in Baton Rouge.  Gary has maintained an extensive planting of brevicaulis in many shades that originated with collections from a nearby wetland many years ago.   Almost all flowers are considerably darker, some a fairly deep blue-purple.

I. brevicaulis from Gary Babin in Baton Rouge

Pale blue I. giganticaerulea growing in LaPlace, LA
Several I. giganticaeruleas or related specimens are another example.  One, found in LaPlace, Louisiana, is the palest blue, nearly white.  Most giganticaeruleas are a darker blue, blue-purple or blue-lavender.
'Eolian'  -  Photo by Robert Treadway.
When I started with Louisiana irises in the late 1970s, Charles Arny’s ‘Eolian’ was the iris held up as the lightest of blues.  It’s still grown and sometimes wins shows, but ‘Eolian’, while lighter than most blue Louisianas, really is not the icy blue that has obsessed some of us.

'Delta Dove'
"Ice Angel'
Three examples of icy blues emerged in the 1980s:  ‘Delta Dove’ (Dunn, R1984); ‘Ice Angel’ (Faggard, 1988); and ‘Southdowns’ (O’Connor, registered in 1992 but first bloomed in 1980).   All these irises approached or met the color requirement, and they also offered a larger, fuller flower than ‘Eolian’.  I can’t speak from much experience about ‘Delta Dove’ and ‘Ice Angel’, having only seen them sporadically, but ‘Southdowns’ is mine and I am well acquainted with its characteristics. 

Some people say that it lacks substance.  I say, however, that it is a gossamer thing of ephemeral beauty – that lacks substance.  So what if you can almost see through a petal?  Isn’t everything supposed to be “transparent” these days?  Does the judges handbook suggest that poor substance is a fault?  Afraid so, but it is a great grower and a fine garden iris that looks especially nice at dusk and in a little shade.  ‘Southdowns’ may not be covered by the Second Amendment, but no one is going to take it away from me.
Another attribute of ‘Southdowns’, if you look closely, is that it really is not blue.  The color upon opening consists of fine purple veins over a white ground.  With time the purple lightens, and even at first and from a distance, the eye sees it as pale blue.  Newer icy blue hybrids are actually icy blue.
These early light blues did not seem to come from a disciplined pursuit of that color.  Dunn’s ‘Delta Dove’ might have, in that one parent was a seedling from two whites, ‘Ila Nunn’ and a white giganticaerulea (‘Her Highness’).  The cross was a wide one, however, with the other parent being the famous red ‘Ann Chowning’.  It was a roll of the dice for blues, but they produced a winner.
Nothing is known about the parentage of ‘Ice Angel’, and ‘Southdowns’ came from a bee pod on ‘Cajun Caper’ in the first year I fiddled with seeds.  (I am sure that the other parent was the blue ‘Mac’s Blue Heaven’ but I did not make the cross.  Cajun Caper’ is a red-violet blend with a strong orange suffusion).
'Faubourg Marigny'
'Estelle Egan'
'Sarah Faith' - Photo by Robert Treadway
Later hybridizing has been more systematic.  There are five irises I would cite as modern examples of work leading to icy blue Louisiana irises.  Three are mine:  ‘Bywater’ ( R2005, Southdowns x Lake Sylvia); ‘Faubourg Marigny’ (R2011, Bywater x Beale Street); and ‘Estelle Egan’ (R2013, Bywater x Sinfonietta).  The fourth is ‘Sarah Faith’ (R2008, Dural Bluebird x Jeri) by the late M.D. Faith.  The last and most recent is Kevin Vaughn’s ‘Aqua Velva’, (R2014, Beale Street x Dural White Butterfly).
‘Bywater’ is actually blue, and like ‘Southdowns’, a very good grower.   The flower form is nearly overlapping, but depending how they are held, some blossoms may appear a bit open.
‘Faubourg Marigny’ is an even lighter blue.  In fact, it opens a pale, pastel blue over a white ground, and it does fade to near white.  Those icy genes clearly are there, however. 
‘Sarah Faith’ got by me.  I have only seen a picture sent by Robert Treadway, who told me about the iris.  It is a beautiful, ruffled pale blue.  Robert says the iris has a nice stalk, too, so everything considered, it was a real loss not to have grown this one, so far.  Judging from just the picture, it is right similar to the next iris.
‘Estelle Egan’ probably is my best pale blue.  It has the color right and adds both ruffling and improved substance.  The iris grows well and forms a nice clump.
I have only seen Kevin’s new ‘Aqua Velva’ one time in a garden, but it looks like a fine addition.  It certainly has a good pedigree, and what a perfect name!
'Aqua Velva'
I am excited about a new iris that popped up in the pursuit of light blues.  ‘House of Blues’, currently in process of registration, comes from a cross of the pastel blue ‘Faubourg Marigny’ and the pastel pink ‘Birthday Suit’.  ‘House of Blues’ may not qualify as icy, but it definitely is cool.

'House of Blues'
If anyone else is intrigued by icy blues, the groundwork done should support real progress.  A good strategy might be to work with strong whites and blues as well as with the existing icy hybrids.  It should be possible to develop pale blue irises with many of the good attributes of modern Louisianas.  

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