Monday, March 18, 2019

Eastern Europe: A New Iris World

By Sylvain Ruaud

Until the 1990s the world of iris was limited to Western Europe, North America, and the two major islands of Oceania. At that time, iris lovers in these countries were not interested in the rest of the world, and the belief was that the rest of the world was not interested in irises. At least that's what was commonly accepted. It all changed due to the Florence International Competition in Italy, when the existence of iris interest in other parts of the globe became known.


Two major events opened the eyes of the western world, that there were irises elsewhere, and especially behind the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain.


In 1985, a variety called 'Libon' (Smid, unregistered) triumphed in Florence. This elegant variegata won over 'Cameo Wine' (Blyth, 1982) and 'Fort Apache' (Schreiner, 1982). These were irises from the great American-Australian tradition, that were accustomed to winning the awards. The second event was the victory in 1995 of 'Ikar' (Volfovitch-Moler, 1995), a variety from Uzbekistan, a country whose very existence was not known to everyone, and winning it did, in a competition that included  'Classic Look' (Schreiner, 1992) and 'Goldkist' (P. Black, 1993). At that point, iris growers knew that there was something new happening in Eastern Europe.

In the Soviet Union

In Eastern Europe, iris culture is determined by climatic conditions. In the southern areas, it is the summer heat that is not suitable for large iris (TB); in the northern states, it is the cold and wet winters that are unfavorably to good growth. The suitable area for growing irises extends roughly between the 41st and 56th parallels. This is why, for this article, I will focus on five states: Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, and Russia.


Iris ‘'Libon' is from the Czech Republic. In the 1980s the problem for those who wanted to try iris hybridization was to obtain broodstock for interesting crosses. In an economy completely in shambles, it was necessary to be cunning and, most of the time, to get the rhizomes secretly, without telling others how it was obtained. This is how 'Libon' was produced, its creator Wojtech Smid made the crossing Crinkled Gem X Amigo's Guitar, two varieties dating to 1964.


At the same time a well-known scientist in the field of botany and horticulture, Milan Blazek, who practiced hybridization himself and took advantage of his contacts abroad also helped by bringing back some plants. All this was improvised, and it is quite surprising that W. Smid managed to send some varieties to Florence.

Before the collapse of the Soviet bloc, elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the iris world was non-existent. Except, it must be pointed out, in the USSR itself, where Professor Rodionenko had acquired a world-wide reputation in botany and specifically in iris botany. Some daring individuals tried to hybridize with means as limited as those available to the Czech hybrizers, and for no other purpose than to indulge themselves. For example, only after 1990 was it announced that Vitali Gordodelov, a former Red Army officer in the Caucasus in Stavropol, or Irina Driaghina of Moscow, were creating new irises.

The freedom found


The dismemberment of the Soviet Union was the occasion for the emergence of a large number of new iris hybridizers. In the Czech Republic, for example, where there has always been a nucleus of hybridizers, they were immediately organized and they even created their catalogs including the western irises they had obtained, and many skilled and inspired horticulturists appeared: Josef and Jiri Dudek, Pavel Nejedlo, and Zdenek Seidl.

'Modre Pondeli' (Seidl, 1997
These four very good hybridizers made themselves known beyond the borders of their country, as soon as they could export their production. The situation in neighboring Slovakia was about the same. But only one breeder managed to conquer the western world: Ladislaw Muska. As soon as he was able to acquire modern varieties he embarked on a highly developed hybridization program. His varieties appeared in France in the late 1990s and, moreover, have distinguished themselves in competitions organized very quickly in Eastern Europe and Russia.

'Brekeke' (Muska, 1996)
In Poland, the movement was launched by a former actor and director, Lech Komarnicki. Living in the north-west of the country, he encountered major setbacks with his irises when they were  destroyed by frost. But these difficulties did not dampened his enthusiasm and he has become an inescapable element of irisdom in his country and neighboring countries.

In Ukraine, an exceptional person was at the origin of the movement: Nina Miroshnichenko, wife of an officer of the Red Army, garrisoned in the east of the country, with rudimentary means, undertook a remarkable hybridization work. She was quickly joined by a nurseryman, Alexandr Trotskiy, whose varieties quickly joined the international level.

Sergei Loktev, extravagant and passionate character, launched the movement in Russia. He abandoned all other activities to focus on hybridization and created in twenty years nearly 800 new irises of all categories! At the same time he organized the Russian Iris Society, which  became one of his most important achievements. Many hybridizers followed his example, and thus Russia became one of the countries with the highest number of new varieties.

'Feodosiya' (Loktev, 2011)
Modern times


Today the countries of Eastern Europe and Russia constitute major centers of iris collections in the world. Some young hybridizers have become admired personalities for the quality and originality of their introductions. This is the case, in Slovakia, of Anton Mego, a hybridizer that has become known in the United States since his iris 'Slovak Prince' (2002) received a Wister Medal in 2009. A distinction as prestigious and as difficult to receive, which is a true testament to his talent.

In Poland Robert Piatek, has hybridized irises since the early 2000s, has done considerable work but unfortunately, is still poorly known outside his country. Other Polish hybridizers have followed suit. Several Ukrainian breeders, benefiting from more favorable climatic conditions, have created irises that are not yet sufficiently known elsewhere than in Ukraine. They are Igor Khorosh and Svetlana Yakovchuk. Both, with seemingly interesting varieties, seek to make themselves known abroad.

The world of iris in Russia is experiencing a real explosion. Three or four names rise above the lot. As Olga Riabykh, Vladimir Osipenko, Viktor Kolesnikov, Marina Volovik, who are among the best known. However, it seems that these hybridizers have difficulty marketing their products outside their country of origin. Some of the issues could be due to the current state of international political conflicts.

'Grinoy Dozhd' (Riabykh, 2015)
Some other breeders also deserve to be recognized: Izidor Golob, in Slovenia, who works quietly in his small country; Laimonis Zakis in Lithuania, a maverick, who creates irises comparable to those elsewhere in the world, but refuses to register them and does not intend to make himself known outside his home.

Some examples:



'Fioletovy Nizkorosly' (Driaghina, 1996)



'Solovinaya Noch' (Miroshnichenko, not registered)


'Horské Oko' (Mego,2015)


'Etsitu' (Piatek, 2015)


'Sertse Okeanu'(Khorosh, 2007)

By spreading throughout Eastern Europe, the cultivation of irises has entered a new field. We can only rejoice at this expansion. But it must be said that irises still have many parts of the globe to conquer.

Editor's Note: Sylvain Ruaud is a well known iris authority in Europe, keeping up with iris news and events in that part of the world. He writes about gardens and irises on his French blog  Irisenlige  and this is his second posts for us. In future posts, he will continue to update us about the world of irises in Europe. 

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