Monday, November 6, 2017

Sydney B. Mitchell: A Renowned California Hybridizer

By Jean Richer

As the president of the iris club that bears his name, and as a longtime staff member at the University of California at Berkeley, I have always felt an affinity for Sydney B. Mitchell, one of the most prominent California iris hybridizers of the early 20th century and a distinguished scholar of library science.

Sydney B. Mitchell was born in Montreal, Canada in 1878, and received bachelor and master of arts degrees from McGill University in Canada. He also was given an honorary Doctor of Literature  degree from Occidental College. While a student at McGill, he befriended the university's gardener, who gave him his first iris plants. Mitchell's brother allowed him to grow his iris in his back yard, and he soon had a sizeable collection. His wife shared his interest in plants, and when they moved to California in 1911 they began their lifelong collaboration in the garden.

                                           Purissima (Mohr-Mitchell 1927)

Mitchell was as distinguished in his "day job" as he was as an irisarian. He joined the UC Berkeley library staff as head purchaser in 1911, became acting librarian for the university during World War I, and founded and became the first director of the Graduate School of Librarianship in 1924. He was named dean of the school in 1944, and retired as Dean Emeritus in 1946. He was also a member of the executive board of the American Library Association, vice president of the California Library Association, a fellow of the American Library Institute, and advisory editor of Library Quarterly.

He had a lifelong interest in horticulture, and was the first president of the California Horticultural Society (a position he held until his death), as well as its journal editor. He was also a founding member of the American Fuchsia Society. In addition, he was a renowned author, and wrote four books: Gardening in California, From a Sunset Garden, Your California Garden and Mine, and Iris for Every Garden.

While other flowers interested him from time to time, it was his love for tall bearded iris that remained with him throughout his life. He hybridized many varieties during his life, and was particularly successful with developing new large plicatas and yellow iris. Some of his finest varieties are 'Alta California,' 'Happy Days,' 'Naranja,' 'Natividad,' and 'Fair Elaine.'

                                     Alta California (Mohr-Mitchell 1931)
                                               Naranja (Mitchell 1935)

Mitchell's greatest achievements in hybridizing, however, were in collaboration with others, particularly his work with William Mohr. Upon Mohr's tragic death at a young age, Mitchell continued the work with Mohr's seedlings, introducing the best ones and hybridizing to further Mohr's breeding lines. One of the early introductions from these seedlings was 'San Francisco,' the first winner of the U.S. Dykes Medal.

                                           San Francisco (Mohr 1927)

 Mitchell initially ran a commercial iris garden at his home in the Berkeley hills, but when he became more interested in hybridizing he sold the commercial enterprise (and its accompanying acreage) to his friend and neighbor Carl Salbach, whose business sold and introduced iris (as well as dahlias and gladiolus) from the mid-1920s to the 1950s.

                                            Sunol (Mohr-Mitchell 1933)

Mitchell was also the (inadvertent) originator of space age iris. In his breeding program he developed a plicata with a curious extension on its beard (later introduced as 'Advance Guard'). While Mitchell was uninterested in pursuing the possible ramifications of the trait himself, he passed the seedling along to fellow hybridizer Lloyd Austin, whose hybridizing work with it eventually resulted in "space age" iris with horns, spoons, and flounced on their beards.

                                          Advance Guard (Mitchell 1945)

                               photos by the late Mike Lowe (we miss you!)

Mitchell was involved in the organization of the American Iris Society, and frequently contributed to its bulletin. He was one of the sixteen writers contributing to the AIS publication The Iris - An Ideal Hardy Perennial. He served as chair of the species committee until the end of his life, and was a longtime custodian of the California division of the Farr Memorial Library. He was honored with the AIS Hybridizer Award in 1941, and with the British Iris Society's Foster Memorial Plaque (given to persons contributing to the advance of the genus Iris) in 1943.

Sydney B. Mitchell passed away in 1951. A few years later, the iris club in Oakland was named in his honor. Throughout his life Mitchell was a proponent of using native plants in home gardens, and he was a particular proponent of Pacific coast native iris. He took great pride in the plantings of PCNs in his own garden, and had a large collection of various forms of Iris innominata and Iris douglasiana. In recognition of his support of Pacific coast iris, the annual award for the best Pacific coast iris introduction is named in his honor.

A yellow form of Iris douglasiana

I would like to thank the American Iris Society, the Society for Pacific Coast Native Iris, and my wife Bonnie Petheram for information used in this blog. Bonnie researched materials on Sydney B. Mitchell in his collection of papers archived at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

What are your favorite Sydney B. Mitchell introductions?

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