by Jean Richter
Lloyd Austin is no longer with us, but we have a rich legacy in the things he left behind: the treasure trove of information in his catalogs, and the beauty of his iris. Austin’s catalogs were unique in the iris world – jam-packed with text and filled with pictures, they were equal parts encyclopedic knowledge and corny hucksterism. Some of his claims were a bit grandiose (some of those supposedly flat iris never managed to bloom as flat in the garden as they did in the pictures), but one can forgive a bit of exaggeration given the sheer volume of information he provided.
He gave detailed descriptions, printed accurate pictures, gave extensive information about culture and bloom seasons, and put in a delightful array of “secret variety games” to enable sharp-eyed customers to get additional discounts. The addition of color to his catalogs in 1952 added another dimension to the information available. For many aril enthusiasts, the pictures in his catalogs were the best indicators of what these rare iris should look like. In fact, even today some of his catalog pictures are the best available images of varieties long vanished from commerce. The color reproduction in these catalogs was for the most part quite accurate, with the notable exception of green iris. Many a budding iris enthusiast got a bit of a letdown when ‘Green Pastures’ bloomed with a color considerably more drab than the gaudy bright green it’s portrayed as in Austin’s catalogs.
Austin’s catalogs were particularly helpful to hybridizers. He was very encouraging to would-be hybridizers, giving parentage and fertility information (particularly for arils and arilbreds), selling hybridizing kits, hybridizing manuals, and even iris seed.
In the end, however, it is Lloyd Austin’s iris introductions themselves that provide his most enduring legacy. Sadly, many of the aril and arilbred iris he collected or hybridized for introduction are no longer available. Many of the extant varieties require the usual amount of careful culture common to this group of iris, though ‘Turkish Topaz’ (1962) is a happy exception to this general rule. A collected regelia hybrid, it grows and blooms for me with no special care, and grows so well for Superstition Iris Gardens that it practically naturalizes there.
More of his reblooming varieties remain in commerce, and I have had very good growth and rebloom from a number of them, including ‘Winter Flame,’ ‘Rip Van Winkle,’ and ‘Dark Mystery’ (1962). Those space age iris that so entranced me that day at Bluebird Haven have a somewhat undeserved reputation for poor growth. While some of his introductions do require a bit of coddling to succeed, I have had very good growth and bloom from ‘Unicorn’ (the one that started it all), ‘Horned Flamingo’ (1963), ‘Pink Unicorn,’ ‘Horned Rosyred,’ ‘Horned Rubyfalls,’ and ‘Flounced Premiere’ (1961).
Lest we forget, Lloyd Austin also introduced a large number of regular old tall bearded iris. I have had very good success with a number of these as well, including one of his best known introductions, ‘Tangerine Carnival’ (1957), the impressive ‘Black Sultan’ (1966), and the free-blooming, large-flowered ‘Crimson Colossus’ (1963).
Even if you’re a staunch space-ager-hater, there are many Lloyd Austin introductions you might enjoy growing – give some a try!
If you would like a PDF of a scanned Lloyd Austin catalog, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org -- we've scanned a number of his catalogs, and several of his manuals.
[This article appeared in somewhat different form in Roots -- The Journal of the Historic Iris Preservation Society, Spring 2008, and the American Iris Society Region 14 Bulletin, Summer 2016]