Monday, March 6, 2017

Lloyd Austin: Pioneering Iris Hybrizider: Part 1

By Jean Richter

                               Turkish Topaz (Austin 1962)

Part I: Early Life and Arilbreds

Around 15 years ago, when I first became interested in iris, I spent a few years merely assisting my housemate with the care of several pots of iris she had rescued from her late mother’s garden. What really got me hooked on iris was a visit to Bluebird Haven Iris Garden, located near Placerville, California (we had gone there in search of identifications for my housemate’s iris). Among the great variety of beautiful iris in bloom there, I was particularly struck by the space-agers – those iris featuring unusual beards in the form of horns, spoons, and flounces. I ordered some rhizomes, and the rest, as they say, is history – I now grow close to 300 different iris.

Love them or hate them, we have hybridizer Lloyd Austin to thank for the space age iris. It was through his vision and dedication that these varieties came into being, and for me it is a pity that he did not live to see the prominence and popularity that space age iris now enjoy - a space age iris was first awarded a Dykes Medal (the highest honor an iris can receive) more than twenty years after his death.

                                 Horned Flare (Austin 1963)

Lloyd Austin made many other contributions to the iris world besides the space agers, however– lesser known, but equally important to his legacy, are his contributions to the development and popularization of aril and arilbred iris, as well as reblooming iris.

Exotic Fire (Austin 1964) reblooming iris

Lloyd Austin was born in 1898 in Westfield, Massachusetts. After serving in World War I, he became an instructor in the Pomology Department at the University of California’s College of Agriculture at Davis. [For those ignorant of the meaning of the term (including the author before she researched this article), pomology is the science of fruit and nut production and distribution.] In 1925 he became the first director of the Institute of Forest Genetics in Placerville, California. 

By 1944 he had determined that he was going to hybridize iris, with his initial specialization being aril and arilbred iris (aril iris are exotic desert iris found from the Middle East to the Himalayas, and arilbreds are hybrids of aril and tall bearded iris). For a time just prior to the establishment of his own Rainbow Hybridizing Gardens in 1946, he was associated with Carl Salbach’s iris enterprise in Berkeley,  California, an association that was later to prove crucial in the development of the first space age iris.

                          Flounced Frivolite (Austin 1964) 

Rainbow Hybridizing Gardens published its first catalog in 1946, and remained in business for twenty years. After Lloyd Austin’s death in 1963, his widow Gladys kept the business going for a few final years in order to introduce his last few cultivars, but sadly the enterprise ceased operations for good after 1966.

Once he had established his interest in aril and arilbred iris hybridizing, Austin began the laborious process of accumulating stock in sufficient quantity to launch his ambitious breeding program. World War II had a very serious impact on aril iris – the old Middle East sources were eliminated by the war, and most of the European dealers and growers lost their entire stock. One of the first, and most important, of Austin’s accomplishments in the aril world was to relocate sources for these iris, bringing them back into commerce or introducing them into commerce for the first time. At the time of his death, almost all of the rare aril species stocks in the U.S.A. originated from his importations.

                                Gold of Ophir (Austin 1955)

In the ensuing years Austin introduced many arils and aril hybrids; some based on pure aril parents, and others derived from the van Tubergen regeliocycli crossed with oncocyclus species or hybrids. He was particularly responsible for rediscovering and publicizing the fertility of the regeliocycli. He also worked extensively with the oncobreds; introducing a large number of new varieties, including one of the few ‘Capitola’ seedlings in a yellow color range, ‘Real Gold’ (1952).

Sadly, in the late 1950s Austin made the difficult decision to discontinue his aril and arilbred hybridization program. Given the difficulties growing these iris, issues with delayed germination, and the niche status of the aril/arilbred market, financial considerations forced him to concentrate his hybridizing efforts on the more profitable tall bearded iris in order to keep his business viable. He still continued to publicize and sell arilbreds in his later catalogs, however.

Coming up in Part 2: reblooming iris and the dawn of the space age… Editor's Note: This is a revised and edited version of an article first published in The Bulletin of Region 14, American Iris Society.

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