Monday, August 13, 2018

Jean and I

by Kevin Vaughn

Jean at her 92nd birthday party together with her 3 daughters.

When Jean Witt passed in 2016 it marked the end of a 50 year correspondence and friendship.  Jean put this then 12 year old in an elite MTB robin that included the likes of Dorothy Guild (who became another long time pen pal), Mary Louise Dunderman, and Walter Welch.  In those days, MTB pods were few and far between. The original Williamson plants, excepting Nambe and Widget, were close to sterile, so that a good crop of seedlings for a year’s effort might be 20-30. Of those seedlings, fewer might qualify as MTBs because of a too large stalk or flower.  With encouragement of Jean and the other robin members, I was able to introduce three of my MTB seedlings that met the class and were improvements on the existing MTB cultivars of their day.   Jean introduced the last two, ‘Real Jazzy’ and ‘Tammy’s Tutu’.  ‘Real Jazzy’ still finds favor in my eyes for its intense coloration and fine form.

For 30 years, I lived and gardened in MS, where bearded irises were risky and the diploid MTBs hated the lack of cold, but a move to Oregon 2010 allowed my program to start and it was time to rekindle a relationship with Jean again.  It was such a pleasure having Jean visit my garden twice during MTB peak and go through the seedling patch with me.  Even in her 90’s she had very definite opinions on MTBs and where the class needed to go.  She convinced me to save a few things that were not a perfect fit for the class but that added important genetic material to the MTB “stew”.  Jean was excited that I was again doing MTBs and gifted a number of seedlings for me to use in breeding.  Among these were several pastel variegata blends from a lavender plicata seedling that she had dubbed “Persis”: (‘King Karl’ X ‘Rhages’) crossed with ‘Jazzy D├ęcor’.  One of these seedlings, now named ‘Jean Witt’, was a genetic powerhouse, and the first crop of seedlings from (‘Sun Dream’ X ‘Jean Witt’) produced an incredible series of seedlings from variegatas, amoenas, maculosas (yellows splashed with violet), and broken colors.  Best yet the X54 series seedlings were all perfectly formed, in-class flowers with high fertility.  I look forward to seeing the first seedlings from crosses with the X54 seedlings next spring.  Many of these had what Jean had described as the “fall flip”, not quite a ruffle but an undulation of the falls that imparts a bit of grace.  It started with 'Real Jazzy' and Jean found that addition was better than ruffling in terms of keeping the MTBs more like their diploid ancestors.

Vaughn Seedling X 54-3 with the "fall flip"
Vaughn seedling X54-1 with the "fall flip"
Clump of Vaughn X 54-3
Vaughn seedling X54-6 (maculosa)
Vaughn seedling X 54-8 (erratic)

When Jean passed, her daughters dug many of the plants from the garden for me to grow on to see if anything would be introduced or useful for further breeding.  Besides the plant we had already named ‘Jean Witt’, there were several that commanded attention at the Region 13/ TBIS meeting this spring.  One that was blooming its head off that first day of tours is a most unusual dotted plicata with the dotting only in the center of the falls.  This has rather nice shape including the fall flip that Jean liked.  Unlike many other MTB breeders that just crossed MTBs to MTBs, Jean wanted to incorporate the best of the diploid TBs into the stew.  Such was the case with this seedling. ‘Rhages’ is an all-over dotted plicata TB and a beautiful pattern. No MTBs existed in this pattern. However, this dotted seedling was a much daintier and beautiful edition of ‘Rhages’.  It doesn’t have pollen but is a sinfully easy pod parent. It is being registered as ‘Just a Dusting’.   Another related seedling that Jean had nicknamed “Sanded Epaulettes” is a Tea Apron type plicata with the hafts heavily peppered on a white ground but no markings elsewhere.    One that Jean nicknamed “Icie” is a lovely flower of clear white standards and falls strongly lined and dotted medium blue-purple.  It has lovely form and is sinfully fertile in both directions.  It is on the shorter side for MTBs, ~18” tall but still manages 7-8 buds/ stalk.  Besides these three plicatas, there were several nice smooth lavender blues, a brown plicata, and a very odd one she had nicknamed “Yellow Stripe” as it was a pale yellow- cream flower but with a yellow belly stripe on the falls.  These were also considered but none seemed either a perfect fit for the class or were the level of advancement in their class/ color that would have pleased Jean.  Several of these have been used as parents.

 'Just a Dusting'
Just a Dusting (clump)
 "Sanded Eppaulettes"

Jean had been working with red MTBs for some time and her Redrock Princess has been a most popular introduction of hers, garnering an AM and being widely used as a parent for MTBs.  Included in the plants dug by Jean’s daughters were ones designated Witt Red #1-3.  These have the unlikely pedigree of ‘Little White Tiger’ X ‘Wawona’ (an unintroduced rusty red) but  ‘Little White Tiger’ was chosen for its form (the fall flip) as well as its nearly perfect MTB proportions even though it was not red.  #2 and #3 were both blooming on the weekend of the tour. Both are pretty much the same size and rust reds with sort of yellow infusions and had the same size and proportion as Little White Tiger with lots of buds on both.   We have chosen #3 of these to be named “Resplendent Redhead” that Jean wanted to use for a deceased granddaughter who had red hair and this one has the color from the orange side, much like human red hair.  When Witt red #1 bloomed I stood before the flower just shocked. It was REALLY red.  Jean had found malvidin in some of the variegatas, the same pigment that makes LA iris red, and this flower had that color of I. fulva in the falls.  I danced a little jig right on the spot (well I am Irish after all!). Then I took the ruler out to measure the stalk. Right at 28” in a year when stalks were often shorter than normal and this seedling was blooming from smallish rhizomes.  Jean would kill me if I introduced a MTB of hers that was too tall! The good news is that it is easily fertile, setting pods on ‘Austin’ and several seedlings of mine and setting seed from pollen of ‘Austin’ and ‘Bold Imp’.  After Jean made such progress on red color I hope that I can get one in those colors with the requisite shorter stalk.  This shade of red is not only a break for the MTBs but for all bearded irises so it needs to be used with abandon!


 "Resplendent Redhead"
Witt Red #1, incredible red coloration, reddest I have seen in bearded iris

Jean passed before she could plant her last seed crop so I also planted these.  Of course we were all hoping for a breakthrough there but only two seedlings of consequence bloomed, both from a bee pod on “Icie”.  One is most interesting flower sort of a gray color with standards edged yellow and falls more lavender, a new color pattern.  A plicata sib that was like a more intense version of “Icie” was also saved.

Grey/ lavender with yellow rim on standard from "Icie"

Besides inheriting the plants and seed, 10 huge boxes of correspondence and notebooks arrived that included the MTB robin letters all the way back to 1952. This was a fascinating read over last winter and shows just how frustrating the MTB class was at their beginnings and what these workers had overcome to bring us to our present state of MTBs.  Jean had quickly found that crossing the original Williamson MTBs with each other just repeated the patterns of the originals.  Even early on, Jean used a number of diploid TBs and BBs such as ‘La Neige’, ‘Mrs. Andrist’, ‘Extempore’, ‘Meadowlark’, and ‘Rhages’ as well as the species I. variegata var. reginae and I.astrachanica in crosses with MTBs.  Not all of these crosses were successful in generating MTBs but they served as parents for further seedlings that did.

 From the correspondence it was clear that Jean was a great “instigator” of trying to interest others in the cause of breeding iris, as she shipped seeds and plants to people all over the world.  When I came across letters between Bee Warburton and Jean in the late 70’s, I had a great chuckle.  Bee wrote “I think the hosta people have kidnapped our Kevin” with Jean responding  “and how do we get him back?”  Both Bee and Jean were involved in “finding jobs for good candidates” and in general encouraging new people to take up the cause.  I hope that both Jean and Bee are pleased that I took up the MTB cause again.

One of the highlights of the 2018 season for me was being visited by all three of Jean's daughters and sharing the excitement of working through Jean’s seedlings for possible introduction.  Jean obviously had some good genes herself as her daughters and grandchildren were all just great people and I felt an almost immediate kinship with them.  I am happy that several of the seedlings that her daughters rescued will be sent onto Terry and Barbara Aitken for introduction.  Aitken’s Salmon Creek had introduced a number of MTBs for Jean and will handle these last introductions for her too.

So thank you Jean for spending a lifetime working with MTBs, introducing unique diploids and species into the genetic stew, and creating a line of highly fertile plants that the rest of us are the beneficiary.  Job well done!

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