Monday, July 22, 2019

Three Twentieth Century Women Iris Hybridizers

by Jean Richter

This is an introduction to three women iris hybridizers from the 20th century who are perhaps not particularly well known, but all created iris of great beauty.

Our first hybridizer is from the earliest era of the American and British Iris Societies, in the early part of the 20th century.

Miss Violet Insole was a horticulturalist from Wales with particular interests in alpine plants and iris. She was born in 1883, and by age 21 was an accomplished horticulturalist, contributing to The Flora of Glamorgan at the invitation of the Cardiff Naturalists' Society.  During World War I she served in the British Red Cross Society Volunteers, and from 1917 was Quartermaster and Officer in Charge of the Llandaff Red Cross Hospital. In the 1920s she traveled abroad to New York, Jamaica, and South Africa to collect plant specimens.

Miss Insole was an early member of the British Iris Society, and was listed as a member by 1924, two years after its founding. She became a successful exhibitor in their shows, garnering many certificates and medals. In 1930 she gave the Society the Insole Challenge Trophy, awarded for a display exhibiting the decorative value of the iris.

Miss Insole was also an accomplished iris breeder. Although she introduced relatively few varieties, many of her varieties were award winners. Perhaps her most famous introduction, which is still widely available in commerce today, is 'Dogrose' (Insole 1930). This tall, stately iris has great impact in the garden.

                                                 'Dogrose' (Insole 1930)

Less well known, but still available in commerce, is the exquisite 'Golden Flare' (Insole 1931).

                                             'Golden Flare' (Insole 1931)

Sadly, Violet Insole passed away after a brief illness at the young age of 49 in 1932. At the time of her passing she was just coming into her own as an iris hybridizer, and surely would have introduced many more excellent iris had she been afforded a longer life.

My research has turned up only the barest of information about our next hybridizer, Luella Noyd. She was born in Spokane, Washington in 1903, and apparently lived in the eastern Washington area her entire life. Her iris hybridizing was concentrated on tall bearded iris, but she also introduced arilbreds, border bearded iris, and an intermediate bearded iris. I first encountered her iris with the lovely space age iris 'Horned Sunshine' (Noyd 1968). She continued Lloyd Austin's work with horned iris by using one of his space age introductions as a parent to 'Horned Sunshine.'

                                       'Horned Sunshine' (Noyd 1968)

'Fluted Lime' (Noyd 1966) is a greenish-yellow self.

                                               'Fluted Lime' (Noyd 1966)

Mrs. Noyd named several iris for her home town of Wenatchee, Washington. Here is her blue introduction 'Wenatchee Skies' (Noyd 1963).

                                         'Wenatchee Skies' (Noyd 1963)

Her lovely introduction 'Striped Butterfly' (Noyd 1958) has aril ancestry and could have been introduced as an arilbred, but she chose to introduce it as a tall bearded iris.

                                            'Striped Butterfly' (Noyd 1958)

Luella Noyd passed away in 1980 at age 76.

Walter and Luella Noyd circa 1960

Our final hybridizer achieved considerable acclaim in the iris world during her long life. Melba Hamben was born in 1910 in Utah. Her interest in flowers, and iris in particular, was a lifelong passion. She started growing iris in 1936 and began hybridizing in 1943 under the mentorship of Tell Muhlestein. She married Jim Hamblen in 1927 and as he shared her love of flowers, together they  ran Mission Bell Gardens.

Melba was a lifetime member of the American Iris Society, an award she received by getting the most new AIS members to join while she was Regional Vice President of AIS Region 12. She served on the AIS board of directors for many years, and as president of the AIS Foundation. She co-edited the AIS book The World Of Irises - it was one of her personal triumphs when the book was published.

Melba received many awards and accolades for her hybridizing accomplishments, including a feature in Life Magazine, honorary citizenship to the states of Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, and the key to the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. She was the first woman (and one of few Americans) to receive the British Iris Society's Foster Medal. She also received the Gold Medal from the American Iris Society.

Melba hybridized mainly tall bearded iris, but also introduced miniature dwarf, standard dwarf, intermediate, and border bearded iris. Her many creations include the beautiful pink and yellow blend 'Valimar' (Hamblen 1958).

                                               'Valimar' (Hamblen 1958)

Here is the lovely yellow 'Royal Gold' (Hamblen 1966).

                                          'Royal Gold' (Hamblen 1966)

One of her later introductions is the beautiful plicata 'Capricious' (Hamblen 1981).

                                            'Capricious' (Hamblen 1981)

Melba Hamblen passed away in 1992. She is remembered as compassionate individual who never hesitated to offer her knowledge and inspiration to those who asked.
I am very grateful to Mary Hess of Bluebird Haven Iris Garden for many of the photos in this blog.

The World of Irises is the official blog of The American Iris Society. Now in its 99th year, The American Iris Society exists to promote all types of irises. If you wish to comment on a post, you can do so at the end of the page and the author or the editors will reply. If you wish to learn more about The American Iris Society, follow the link.


  1. Thank you for a wonderfully interesting history.

  2. A sad tale of Violet Insole's demise aged just 49.

    Violet was obviously very proud of her irises and showed many people around her garden when they were in full bloom. In the summer of 1932 she apparently was diagnosed with appendicitis but refused to have an operation until the iris's had finished flowering. The appendicitis developed into peritonitis. She was apparently operated on by a doctor friend on the kitchen table at her home, Insole Court in Llandaff, Cardiff. She died after a further operation in hospital.
    So it would appear that her passion for irises resulted in her premature death.
    Insole Court Archive Research Group, Cardiff, UK.

  3. Thank you for the article. My brother and I are the only grandchildren of Luella Noyd. I searched for her hoping to find the varieties she hybridized to plant at a new home and found your article. You made my day, week and month. Thank you again!

    1. My grandparents lived next door to Mrs. Noyd. She was a very nice lady to a little girl (me) I loved her flowers and I always went and talked to her when she was out tending her flowers. She always gave me a beautiful bouquet too. I didn’t know she created several varieties. They will be on my watch list for bulb shopping.