Monday, October 21, 2019

Iris in Indiana: E.B. and Mary Williamson

by Jean Richter

Edward Bruce Williamson was born in 1877 on Marion, Indiana. His father Lent A. Williamson and an uncle founded the Wells County Bank in Bluffton, Indiana in 1888, where his father was president until 1918. His mother was Dorothea Kellerman Williamson. Bruce, as he was known to family and friends, graduated from Ohio State University in 1897, and then worked as Assistant Curator of Insects (his academic specialty) at the Carnegie Museum. He also taught high school science, and published numerous scientific articles on dragonflies, upon which (in addition to damselflies) he was a world-class authority.

He married Anna Tribolet in 1902, and the following year began working in his father's bank, first as a cashier, and then succeeding his father as president in 1918. The Williamsons had three foster daughters, Dorothea, Jane, and Mary.

E.B. Williamson (as he was known professionally), started growing irises soon after he married and obtained his home and garden in Bluffton. He began corresponding with J.N. Gerard regarding hybridizing irises, who gave him the rather astonishing advice that so many people had been breeding tall bearded iris that their potential for improvement was probably exhausted! At Gerard's suggestion, Williamson began breeding aril irises, probably the most difficult type of iris to grow in Indiana. Despite the difficulty, he was able to produce successful crosses with Iris susiana and Iris korolkowii. After a number of years, Morrison abandoned his hybridizing program with arils and gave his entire collection to hybridizer B.Y. Morrison. Charles Gersdorff, for many years the American Iris Society registrar, was impressed with some of Williamson's korolkowii hybrids and introduced them. Unfortunately, none are known to be extant today.

Williamson had a very unorthodox hybridizing method, gathering pollen from multiple cultivars, mixing the pollen in small pillboxes, and then applying the pollen to the flowers of iris  he thought would be good parents. He was assisted in this by his daughters Mary and Jane, and he sometimes also hired local schoolchildren to assist if he had particularly large numbers of flowers to hybridize.

This method produced unique seedlings of bearded iris, but was not successful with beardless iris, as usually bees had pollinated the flowers before he could get to them. One instance in which he did not use mixed pollen in a cross was one between Louisiana iris species Iris fulva and what is now called Iris brevicaulis. The resulting variety 'Dorothea Williamson' (named after his mother) was one of the first Louisiana iris hybrids, and the first bred by an American. 'Dorothea Williamson' (or its close relations) now grows semi-wild in many areas of the U.S., including places where native Louisiana iris are not found (such as the eastern seaboard).

When E.B. Williamson began to sell iris in 1918, he established a nursery named Longfield Iris Farm (named after the name of his father's house in Bluffton). Two years later he entered into a partnership with hybridizer Paul Cook, who would later become one of the world's most distinguished hybridizers himself.

E.B. Williamson's fame as an iris hybridizer came not from aril or Louisiana iris, however, but from a tall bearded iris that radically changed course of iris development in the U.S. He made many crosses of the collected tall bearded iris 'Amas.' Of all these crosses only a few yielded pods, and only one contained a seed - the largest bearded iris seed he had ever seen. From this seed grew the plant he introduced as 'Lent A. Williamson' after his father in 1918. This iris was one of the first tetraploid iris (four sets of chromosones) produced in the U.S., and an important advancement (nearly all modern tall bearded iris are tetraploid). Many hybridizers used this iris to create their own tetraploid iris, leading to it being called the "great progenitor."

'Lent A. Williamson' (1918)
photo by Mary Hess

Williamson himself used 'Lent A. Williamson' to produce the important iris 'Dolly Madison,' which can be found in the background of a myriad of modern iris.

'Dolly Madison' (1927)
photo by Mary Hess

Below are some other excellent iris Williamson introduced during the 1920s.

'Cinnabar' (1928)
photo by Mary Hess

'Gay Hussar' (1925) originally listed as IB, now BB
photo by Mary Hess

'Rhea' (1928) pentaploid (5 sets of chromosones)!
photo by Mary Hess

While working at the bank and in his iris fields, Williamson continued to do research on dragonflies and damselflies. He named an astounding 14 new genera and 92 new dragonfly species. His contributions to entomology were recognized by having a new genus of dragonfly named Williamsonia in his honor. He joined the faculty of the University of Michigan in 1928, and his bank failed in early 1929 (just before the Great Crash). Since his university position required his presence in Michigan, his daughters Mary and Jane took over the operation of Longfield Iris Farm.

E.B. Williamson was elected to the AIS board of directors in 1926, and elected vice president in 1928, a position he held until his death in 1933 after a brief illness. Longfield Iris Farm continued to introduce iris after his death. One of the best of these later introductions is 'Amigo,' a handsome and vigorous iris.

'Amigo' (1933)
photo by Mary Hess

Mary Williamson was born in 1909, and died in Bluffton in 1987. In the course of managing Longfield Iris Farm after her father died, she named, registered, and introduced a fabulous white and purple iris that became a classic almost immediately: 'Wabash.' When it won the Dykes Medal in 1940 it was already one of the most popular iris in the U.S. and Canada, and is still a very popular iris today.

'Wabash' (1936)
photo by Mary Hess

The matter of the true originator of 'Wabash' (E.B. or Mary Williamson) had been a matter of some controversy over the years. However, when she wrote a history of Longfield Iris Farm, Mary named herself as its hybridizer, and when the British Iris Society awarded the Dykes Medal for 'Wabash,' it also identified her as the originator. Subsequent research has fairly unequivocally proved that Mary Williamson was the originator of 'Wabash,' and one the first women hybridizers to win the Dykes Medal.

Another of Mary's important achievements was the popularization of miniature tall bearded iris, or "table irises" as they were known at the time. While her father referred to these smaller, more delicate iris as "runts," Mary saw their potential. E.B. allowed only a few of these iris to be introduced during his lifetime, and Mary continued working with them and introduced a number of others in the 1930s and 1940s. Alice White was another major advocate of these iris, and led a campaign within the AIS to have them recognized as a distinct class. The exacting standards for this new class, now called miniature tall bearded iris, were written by White using measurements provided by Mary Williamson. The Williamson-White Medal is awarded by the AIS annually to the best miniature tall bearded iris. While the award was named for E.B Williamson and Alice White, it is perhaps more appropriate to honor Mary Williamson who did so much to popularize these iris rather than her father.

The Williamsons both had a profound effect on the development of iris in the U.S., from E.B. Williamson's breakthroughs with Louisiana iris and tall bearded iris, to Mary's Dykes Medal winner and her popularization of miniature tall bearded iris.

I am greatly indebted to the material found in Clarence Mahan's wonderful book Classic Irises and the Men and Women Who Created Them, as well as to Mary Hess for the use of her beautiful photographs.


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