Monday, April 22, 2019

Border Irises


By Kevin Vaughn

I grew up in MA in the AIS of the 60’s. One of the constants of gardens of that era was the use of either Pewee or Paltec to border or face down the TB plantings. 
Paltec
Although they are irises, they looked sort of small and sad bordering the TBs as they were so much less sophisticated than the TBs they surrounded and didn’t make a really effective edging (I still find this the same even with the advancement in MTBs; they look best with themselves not facing down TBs).  Harold Knowlton was one of the first to actually hunt out a solution and so his “delightful runts”, small plants that segregated from his TB breeding, were planted as clumps at the corners and sometimes edging the beds.  Unknowingly, he had created a new class of irises. The proportions of his iris were nearly ideal: flowers under 8 ½” in height plus width with a ratio of 3:1 of height of the stalk/ combine height and width of the flower. The use of these smaller irises at the bed corners was especially effective at lowering the eye towards the corners.  In Harold’s mind, it would be great to have a whole series of these irises and he shared this enthusiasm for the runts and how much more effective they were than Pewee or Paltec in providing an edging for the TB beds.   And with that the Border Bearded class was started.  Other New England hybridizers followed suit, with Miriam Corey’s Little Brother, Lowry’s Two Bits, and Buttrick’s Clarendon Springs used in similar manner in their gardens. 

Buttrick Garden
In the Tuft’s garden in Grafton, the border iris were use in what you might call the “mini-me” effect.  A TB with a certain color or pattern was echoed at the edge of the bed with a BB of the same color, although finding a TB to replicate the exotically colored Jungle Shadows or boldly colored pink and purple bicolor Frenchi was impossible. 


Frenchi
Jungle Shadows
They were unique in all irises.  In Lynn Markham’s garden the BBs were used to face down the TBs but she also had a kidney shaped bed of just BBs. I loved it as the BBs were allowed to form clumps and were not overshadowed by their bigger brothers.  Here I saw Myrtle Wolff’s classic BBs Debbie Ann and Timmie Too, Melba Hamblen’s Tulare, and Marilyn Scheaff’s Little Lynn for the first time.  All would be in my garden subsequently.  In my garden, Miss Ruffles and Botany Bay were planted as large clumps at the corners of the TB bed and a number of others were grown to face down the TBs including Harold Knowlton’s Cricket and Pearl Cup.


Tulare
The TBs of that era weren’t the “fat ladies” that we have now so that even without trying to produce BBs smaller segregants fell out of crosses for TBs and many of these early BBs had fine proportion.  Seedlings from Rippling Waters, Lipstick, many of the Hall pinks and dark plicatas, Black Forest, reds, and Golden Flash gave lots of BB seedlings in exquisite proportions.  A few people, like Myrtle Wolff, actually pulled out the large seedlings, selecting especially for the runts.  Bennett Jones, Maybelle Wright, and Lynn Markham made crosses on purpose for BBs and gave us a string of great plants that were good-growing irises that stayed in class.

It is unfortunate that these lofty ideals and great beginnings were somehow lost in a flood of weak plants with oversize flowers that overgrew the class when over-fertilized.  Because of these poor growers with over-size flowers, the BB class suffered from a poor public perception, despite the number of ones that were fine plants.

Fortunately, the ideal of vigorous, well-proportioned plants suitable to edge TB beds and where TBs would look out of place because of their size, still lives on today.  Although there are certainly BBs that fall out of straight TB crosses, the Dykes Medalist Brown Lasso, being an outstanding example, a better approach has come from making deliberate crosses for these irises.  So hybridizers of late have used a three pronged approach:
  • Cross BBs with other BBs or smallish TBs
  • Cross BBs with the very vigorous IBs
  • Incorporate 48 chromosome species such as I aphylla or I.reichenbachii into the breeding lines to produce more well-proportioned, better-branched stalks.
All of these approaches have netted iris that are not only good garden plants but also reliably in class irises.  This last spring, clumps of East Hampton and Venus Blush, planted on the corners of a TB bed and larger clumps of My Cher of Happiness, First in Line, Mermaid’s Dream, and Dance Gypsy effectively edged a large TB planting.  A narrow bed was planted solidly to BBs and was one of my favorites in my garden, it was like “Honey I shrunk the TBs!”.  So, if you have been disappointed by some of the BBs of the past, please give these new BBs a try.  They are outstanding plants and serve a vital purpose in the garden.




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