Monday, January 9, 2017

Developing New Pacifica Iris Hybrids

Kathleen Sayce
January 1, 2017

This could be titled the Frustrations of Developing New Hybrids. 

The current issue of Pacific Iris came out two weeks ago, and it includes sadness:  well-known irisarian Jean Witt died in 2016. Jean cast a very long shadow over many decades of iris breeding, including PCI and wide crosses between PCI and Sibiricae species. This issue celebrates her life, including decades of her work hybridizing, guiding generations of irisarians, and looks at the future of iris hybridization from the viewpoint of several current growers.

The last time we spoke, Jean told me that the world of iris breeding is still wide open. As much has been done, we have only scratched the surface, she said. New patterns, new colors, and new genetic crosses await us. 

My own perspective has changed greatly over the years that I’ve been growing PCI. I began with the desire to grow sturdy plants with flowers in a rainbow of pure colors in an ever widening range of flowering months. Local climate constraints [growing on the coast of the Pacific Northwest] became clear over several frustrating years of failed crosses, and even lack of seed set on open pollinated flowers during particularly wet springs. This reality led me to rethink breeding goals. I started other beardless Iris species from seed, with a goal of wide crosses with PCI. Several of those plants immediately picked up a virus, so out they went. It was time for rethinking. 

Iris tenax in the garden, grown from seed and showcasing the sturdy flowers, held well above leaves and in this case, with nicely rounded petals. 

I offer my modified goals here, as we enter winter in the northern hemisphere. 

Goal One: Well-shaped flowers that don’t melt in the rain. 
The pale yellows I developed a few years ago have fragile flowers. One good rainstorm, and the petals are gone. White and other pale flower colors often have the same issue. Richard Richards’ very sturdy white-flowered hybrids from southern California, bred for heat tolerance and long summer droughts, hold up to my local rain. Largely ruffly flowers with wide petals and abundant frills also tend to do badly in wet weather, as do most flat dinner-plate type petals. I have a new appreciation every wet spring for those narrow, sturdy falls on species PCI that bend down rather than out. 

Floppy pods! Snails and slugs may chew on the pods when they are flat on the ground. 

Goal Two: Flowering stems that stand up and flex in high winds, and hold their seed pods up, weeks later.  
While stems that flop over undoubtedly help with seed dispersal in nature; in the garden, this makes it hard to find and collect seeds. I started with green organza bags to enclose pods, only to find that they vanish in the garden, sometimes for years. Brightly colored bags do better, but upright stems are better still. 

One of the sturdiest PCI in the coastal garden is this dwarf Iris douglaisana selection. The flowers are plain, and yes, this one stands up to rain and wind nicely. 

Goal Three: Plants that are strong, vigorous, and sturdy, with a variety of heights. 
Too many current hybrids are all the same size. Historically, PCI had very short plants, well under 12 inches (25 cm) in height, as well as tall plants, more than 30 inches high (76 cm). Bring back the full range of heights! I’m now selecting, as much as I can, for taller, stronger plants. Each climate has its own constraints and opportunities, and in my climate, sturdiness is an important goal. 

An I. douglasiana selection from Cape Blanco, Oregon, has plain lavender flowers on sturdy stems, and is taller than most PCI. 

As for colors? Ha. I’ll take what I can get, to get started on the next century of PCI hybrids. It's back to the drawing board for me. Jean is right:  the field is wide open for new irises of all kinds.  

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