Monday, September 24, 2018

Grace Sturtevant - The Grand Lady of American Iris Culture

by Jean Richter

Grace Sturtevant was a singular figure in the early history of iris in the U.S. She was a hybridizer of considerable repute, and an early adopter of scientific methods towards iris breeding. In addition, she was instrumental in the founding of the American Iris Society.

Grace Sturtevant was born in Boston in 1865, the daughter of agriculturalist Edward Lewis Sturtevant. Her mother passed away when she was 10, and it fell to her to run the family household and look after her three younger siblings. She had considerable artistic talent, and illustrated her father's records (which were later published as "Sturtevant's Edible Plants" after his death). She hybridized her first iris in 1910, and became seriously interested in iris hybridizing in 1914. She opened a small nursery, Glen Road Iris Gardens, in 1917. Glen Road Iris Gardens was active until 1932, and in that time she introduced numerous iris, mostly tall bearded iris but also intermediate, miniature dwarf, and Siberian iris.

Several of her more notable 1918 introductions include 'Mme. Cheri,' 'Sherbert', and 'Sindjkha'. The latter iris is particularly widely distributed, and can be found in numerous gardens. My housemate Gesine Lohr had the experience of rescuing some un-named iris plants from a friend's newly-purchased home - iris that later turned out to be 'Sindjkha'.

                                                           'Mme. Cheri' (Sturtevant 1918)

'Sherbert' (Sturtevant 1918)

'Sindjkha' (Sturtevant 1918)

Much of Grace Sturtevant's philosophy on hybridization can be found in the pages of her Glen Road Iris Gardens catalogs. One particularly notable quote: "The greatest pleasure in life is the recognition of the finest." She was a harsh critic of her own creations, selecting a far smaller percentage of her iris for introduction than was common at the time. Always striving to improve on her introductions, she often in later catalogs urged her customers to discard her earlier varieties as inferior to her more recent ones. 

She had a particular interest in yellow iris, and below is one of her best yellow introductions, 'Chalice' from 1924.

 Chalice (Sturtevant 1924)

She also had considerable interest in plicata iris, and here is one of her more famous plicatas, 'True Delight', also from 1924.

'True Delight' (Sturtevant 1924)

Another quote from her catalog: "Color is the first quality that attracts the attention of the gardener; it is often the last. From the very beginning color has therefore remained foremost in the selection of varieties for introduction." Below are two of her introductions exhibiting unique colors: 'Vishnu' from 1924 and 'Cameliard' from 1927.


                                                             'Vishnu' (Sturtevant 1924)

 'Cameliard' (Sturtevant 1927)

One of her later introductions, 'Pink Jadu' was a unique color in plicatas in 1932.
Pink Jadu (Sturtevant 1931)

In addition to her hybridizing activities, Grace Sturtevant was instrumental in the founding of the American Iris Society in 1920, and served in a number of leadership roles early in its existence. She also received numerous awards for her hybridizing, including the Gold Medal of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1924, the AIS Gold Medal in 1935 and the Foster Memorial Plaque in 1938. Several years after selling off her iris-growing property due to ill health, Grace Sturtevant passed away in 1947.

(from the January 1948 AIS Bulletin)

British hybridizer Arthur Bliss, a close associate of Grace Sturtevant, honored her by naming one of his introductions after her in 1926.

'Grace Sturtevant' (Bliss 1926)

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