Monday, February 25, 2019

Siberian Irises: The Greatest of Them All – White Swirl

by Bob Hollingworth

The first blog I wrote for AIS in 2011 about Siberians gave the background on 'Caesar’s Brother' and was entitled The Greatest of Them All.  After a long gap, let’s return to that theme and consider the other, very strong, contender for this title – 'White Swirl'.  'White Swirl' was introduced by Fred Cassebeer in 1956. Mr. Cassebeer was a pharmacist in New York who ran the family pharmacy store in Manhattan and also made many contributions to AIS including serving on the Board of Directors, editing the AIS Bulletin, and designing the Distinguished Service and Hybridizers medals – both of which he was later awarded.

The lovely form of White Swirl
'White Swirl' wasn’t always called by this name. When originally registered by Mr. C. it was called 'Frank Stubbs'. As I remember it, Mr. Stubbs was a longtime gardener/horticulturist for the Cassebeers. When it became clear that this was a very special flower, Mr. C. was prevailed upon to find a more attractive name and thus 'White Swirl' was born – and poor Mr. Stubbs’ shot at eternal glory was, rather unfairly, nipped in the bud.

                                Fred Cassebeer (left) shows one of his bearded iris introductions

The origin of 'White Swirl' is a mystery which has led to considerable speculation regarding its parentage. Mr. Cassebeer said that he planted four coffee cans full of bee pod seeds from existing Siberians in his garden, and 'White Swirl' stood out among the thousands of resulting progeny. His best guess at parentage, based on its appearance and his existing Siberians at that time was ‘Gatineau’ and ‘Snowcrest’.

Whatever its origins, it rapidly became clear that 'White Swirl' was novel and unusually attractive. A sparkling white with a touch of yellow in the center and quite large for its times, its form was most notable – horizontally flaring falls with an interesting curvy (swirled) form that was unlike most of its peers which had pendant falls. Perhaps as another thought on the source of this, then unusual, form  a similar flaring white Siberian has been reported as a naturally-occurring rare variant from Japan – I. sanguinea var. albiflora.  Snow Queen’, a form of I. sanguinea collected in Japan in 1900, is described as having “horizontally-poised falls” and is the pollen parent of 'Snowcrest', one of the putative parents of 'White Swirl'.

'White Swirl' received an Honorable Mention award in 1957. In 1961 Ben Hager wrote “This one (White Swirl) is such an advance that it doesn’t look like a Siberian Iris …. almost …. The Morgan Award should be revived for this one alone if necessary”, and in 1962 'White Swirl' did in fact receive this award (then the equivalent of an Award of Merit) which had not been given since 1954.  Even more impressive, in 1987, 12 years after Mr. Cassebeer’s death, it received the AIS Board of Directors Award given to an iris that has had an extraordinary influence on iris breeding but never received the highest AIS award, the Dykes Medal. This award no longer exists (unfortunately to my thinking), but 'White Swirl' certainly earned it.  

As soon as it was introduced, hybridizers jumped all over it, despite the fact it produces little pollen, and it’s rounded ruffled form became the standard for Siberian irises for several decades and is still seen very frequently today. It was clearly a very significant factor in the rise of interest in Siberians in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, a search on the AIS Iris Registry shows over 100 Siberians with White Swirl included specifically in their parentage, and many more where it exists in the background of named varieties which were then used further as parents.

                                          'Ego' - One of 'White Swirl's' many winning progeny

                                                    Another example - 'Ruffled Velvet'

Just a list of some of the major awards to its progeny shows it’s influence – 12 of the 15 Siberians receiving the Morgan Award (then the highest AIS award specific for Siberian irises) or, later, the Morgan-Wood Medal from 1970-1987 had 'White Swirl' prominently in their parentage, including Bill McGarvey’s 'Dewful' in 1970, 'Supergo' in 1971, 'Ego' in 1972 and 'Pink Haze' in 1984, Ben Hager’s 'Swank' in 1973,  Sid DuBose’s 'Vi Luihn'  in 1977, Currier McEwen’s 'Ruffled Velvet' in 1980 and 'Butter & Sugar' in 1981, Harley Briscoe’s 'Steve Varner' in 1982 and, later, Calvin Helsley’s 'Mabel Coday' in 1991. It was also the parent of two British Dykes medals winners in Marjorie Brummitt’s 'Cambridge' in 1971 and 'Anniversary' in 1979. Now that is some record of success!

                                    'White Swirl' in the gardens at Michigan State University

Like 'Caesar’s Brother', 'White Swirl' is still readily available from plant nurseries and has garden value well beyond its considerable historical significance. Reportedly Fred Cassebeer in his later years requested that when he died he wanted 'White Swirl' planted on his grave – we can only hope that it was.

So, which was the greatest? 'Caesar's Brother'? 'White Swirl'? Or are there other contenders such as Currier McEwen's yellow  'Butter and Sugar'?

1 comment:

  1. I hope to have a division for the Fall Region 4 auction. Historical iris are very popular at the auction fundraisers.


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