Monday, September 30, 2019

THE ITALIAN LADIES


By Sylvain Ruaud


In Italy iris hybridizing is not a new activity. But as you are about to find out, over the years it has taken its own — very original — dimension. Everywhere else in Europe it is men who have dedicated their lives to irises, certainly with enthusiasm and passion, but also as a legitimate business concern. In Italy, women were the ones to start the work. Primarily as a hobby, but secondarily to ensuring sustainability. Many of us have long ignored what was happening beyond the Alps during the first half of the twentieth century. And that may have been kept a mystery if it wasn’t for a recent Bulletin by the Società Italiana dell'Iris. I read an article written by Patrizia Verza Ballesio that brings attention to the mystery about these ladies. I do not read italian enough to be able to make a true translation of this article, but at least I understand enough to satisfy my curiosity, especially since reading the little book "Iris tra Botanica e Storia" I had already learned a little more. Here are the portraits of these women hybridizers so little known.
Mary Senni


In the collection of Parc Floral de Vincennes in Paris I discovered a variety of tall bearded iris called 'Verlaine' by Mary Senni. This beautiful flower in bronze tones pleased me, but I was even more taken by the name of the hybridizer. Who was this Mary Senni? I figured that this person was someone known by hybridizer Armand Millet, in 1931, since he chose this name for one of his novelty irises: 'Mary Senni' is a charming pale purple iris, very feminine in appearance.




Thanks to Signora Ballesio for giving us a brief portrait of this great lady. "Mary Gayley (1884-1972), of American descent, married Count Giulio Senni in 1907. In her garden called Grottaferrata she cultivated mostly roses and irises. During the 30s to 50s, she played a prominent role in publicizing information on the progress of iris hybridization in Europe and the United States through articles she published in the magazine "Il Giardino Fiorito". She was in close contact with the most important hybridizers of the time, so much so that Millet in 1931 dedicated one of his irises to her. At the same time, she practiced hybridization herself in her Roman garden. In 1937 she managed to create an international iris competition in Rome, which was quickly interrupted by the war.” Known and appreciated in Britain where her articles were often published, the British Iris Society awarded her in 1959 the Foster Memorial Plaque for her contribution to the advancement of knowledge of the genus Iris.
Gina Sgaravitti


I was eager to know who Gina was. For twenty years I cultivated the variety 'Beghina' knowing nothing else than the name of its creator. This is what Patrizia Verza Ballesio says about her: "Angela Perocco, known as Gina (1907-1995) is of Venetian origin. Her marriage to Teresio Sgaravitti brought her to Rome where she had to look after a large garden that over the years was to become full of irises and roses.” She became a producer of perennials and even created a catalog exclusively devoted to irises called "Iris di Via Appia," it presented a wide choice of the best American and French irises of the 40s and 50s as well as a dozen of the owner's personal seedlings. She was a very organized hybridizer who meticulously noted the coordinates of her irises and their location in a garden — despite the years, they remained identifiable.

Flaminia Specht
The name Flaminia Specht first came to my attention when I read the winners of the 1973 Florence Competition and her 'Rosso Florentino' was awarded the Golden Florin. Her maiden name was Flaminia Goretti (1905-2004) and her husband's name was George Specht. (1) "She devoted her life to the iris and the results of her efforts are still appreciated today; it was thanks to her determination and tenacity, combined with that of another Italian-American, Nita Stross, that the Iris Garden of Florence, the International Competition and the Italian Iris Society were created. Many of her irises, such as 'Ala d'Oro', 'Napoleone', 'Chianti', 'Zabaione' have been present for years in the catalog Guido Degl'Innocentis.


Nita Stross


The name of Nita Stross, born Radicati, (1910-1995) is firmly attached to many activities related to irises. Including the creation, in the property of her husband, of the Garden of Mugnano. She added the importation of American varieties and the distribution of a mail-order catalog "The Iris of Mugnano" distributed in the 60s. She took part in the creation of the Iris Garden of Florence and the direction of the magazine "Il Giardino Fiorito." She joined her friend G.G. Bellia in the creation of the San Bernardino di Trana Experimental Garden, near Turin, which has since become the Giardino Botanico Rea, which houses a superb collection of historical irises.

Her dedication to the iris world are remarkable, including the creation of her own varieties. They were rather numerous and one of them, 'Il Cigno', a beautiful white iris, won in 1963 the second prize of the International Competition of Florence. Many of her irises were used by another 60s Italian breeder, Giuseppe Giovanni Bellia.
Eva Calvino


Those who are interested in literature know well the Italian writer Italo Calvino, whose story "The Baron in the Trees" is known worldwide. But, they do not know that his mother, Eva Mameli Calvino, made her name in the field of botany and, in particular, in the field of irises. She was successively professor of botany at the University of Cagliari, Sardinia, then Director of the Experimental Floriculture Station of San Remo. Her interest in irises can be seen in the large number of articles written for the magazine "Il Giardino Fiorito" during the 30s — 50s. She was also a founding member of the Italian Iris Society. Finally, she also tried to hybridize and to send several of her new varieties to the Florence International Competition that she helped launch.


So here are five ladies, almost unknown in irisdom today, but who brought so much to the iris world in general and, in particular, to its Italian sphere, a heritage that deserves to be preserved. In fact, if they have remained so little known outside the small circle of Italian irido-philes, it is largely because, until recently (2), hybridization was, in Italy, considered a pastime, practiced by intellectuals and aristocrats who granted their acquaintances a modest attention, not considered it necessary to record them, and for whom the marketing of iris has been nothing but a little anecdote.


(1) In fact it would be George Specht who would be the breeder of 'Rosso Fiorentino'

(2) The first registration of an Italian variety took place only in 1997.

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