Monday, January 27, 2020

What is a Dwarf Bearded Iris?

…and why are dwarf lovers so persistent?

 Tom Waters

'Icon' (Keppel, 2008)
In the beginning, there were no class definitions. The meaning of the term “dwarf bearded iris” was taken for granted, as all the ones being grown in gardens were similar in appearance and distinct from their taller relatives.  If you were botanically inclined, you could turn to a reference like W. R. Dykes’s The Genus Iris to get a list of dwarf bearded species, and safely assume that your garden dwarfs were hybrids or forms of those species.

The 1939 AIS Checklist attempted to be somewhat more helpful by giving a height range in addition to the list of species, setting the boundary between dwarfs and intermediates (which were stated to be hybrids between dwarf and tall bearded irises) at 17 inches. This doesn’t make sense, though, if it is taken as a definition, rather than just helpful descriptive information. What if two of those dwarfs species were crossed and produced a hybrid over the limit? Or what if a dwarf and tall were crossed and produced a hybrid under the limit? Giving both a definition in terms of ancestral species and a definition in terms of height is inviting contradiction unless it is clear whether ancestry trumps height or vice versa.

Perhaps in recognition of this, the AIS adopted a new classification in 1947, based decisively on ancestry. A hybrid involving only dwarf species would always be a dwarf; a hybrid involving only tall species would always be a tall. A hybrid involving both dwarfs and talls would usually be intermediate, but might be deemed either dwarf or tall if that was the group it most resembled. Although this last provision was strangely vague, the definition at least allowed hybridizers to cross dwarfs amongst themselves and register the progeny as dwarfs, without worry about a height limit or other factors.

This classification system was introduced at the same time as Walter Welch was organizing the Dwarf Iris Society (then called the Dwarf Iris Club) and stirring up interest in dwarf hybridizing, so there may have been some impetus to clarify definitions for this reason. Although dwarfs had been widely grown in both Europe and North America for as long as tall beardeds, they had not historically received a great deal of attention. Gardeners took them for granted, and although new hybrids were introduced from time to time, there were no hybridizers who focused on them exclusively or had planned breeding programs solely to produce new dwarfs. Welch turned that around, first by organizing a program of round robins, whereby enthusiasts (many of them recruited from gardening clubs and publications, not just iris societies) could discuss dwarf irises by mail, and then by creating the Dwarf Iris Club in 1950. I believe this was the first specialist iris society devoted to a particular type of iris. With the blessing of the AIS, the Dwarf Iris Club even trained and appointed its own judges, just for judging dwarfs!

In 1951, something happened that put the class definition under unprecedented strain. Paul Cook (a friend and correspondent of Walter Welch) introduced the first three irises of the type we now know as standard dwarf bearded (SDBs), from crossing the tiny dwarf species Iris pumila with tall beardeds. As a dwarf x tall cross, a strong case could be made that these new irises were intermediates, and indeed that is how they were registered at the time. But they were no taller than many of the dwarfs being grown at the time, so this might seem a little inconsistent. Welch and the DIS focused attention on the presence of a small branch in most SDBs, asserting that a branch was disqualifying for being considered a dwarf. Oddly, the list of dwarf species that AIS had been printing and reprinting for many years included amongst the dwarfs Iris aphylla, which is copiously branched.

The 1954 classification made
the dwarf people grumpy
Recognizing that the future might hold even more examples of such “problem children” from newfangled hybridizing experiments, the AIS suddenly reversed itself in 1954, offering a classification based entirely on height, with ancestry deemed irrelevant. This makes sense in a world where parentages have become complex or uncertain. Height is something that can be established with a ruler. Now the boundary between dwarfs and intermediates was set at a rigid 15 inches, regardless of what species the plants had come from or what characteristics they had. Welch and the DIS refused to accept this definition, appalled at the thought of 15-inch branched “intermediates” masquerading as dwarfs! Welch could be an opinionated and difficult person under the best of circumstances, and now he and his supporters had a righteous cause for contention. This caused a rift between the AIS and the DIS whose repercussions are still playing out today. From 1955 until 1982, the DIS had its own awards system, issuing the Welch Award in competition with AIS’s Caparne Award, despite the fact that it tended to be the same irises winning both awards.

Other classification issues were percolating at this time as well. There were movements afoot to recognize the so-called “table irises” and “border irises” as separate from both TBs and IBs. A committee was put together to study all these issues and propose a solution. In 1958, the AIS adopted a classification that has remained in place (with minor modifications) to this day. The dwarfs were separated by height into miniature dwarfs and standard dwarfs, with the dividing line being 10 inches. The border bearded class was created for short TBs, and the miniature tall bearded class was created for the table irises. The DIS had no interest in any of these new classes, not even the SDBs, and so the Median Iris Society was formed with the mission of promoting the five new classes between MDB and TB. A peculiar quirk of this development is that standard dwarfs are considered medians, not dwarfs, in apparent contradiction with their name.

'Alpine Lake' (Willott, 1980)
a classic MDB from SDB x pumila breeding
The 1960s and 1970s were perhaps the most exciting time in the history of dwarf iris development. Although the SDBs themselves were deemed too large to be considered true dwarfs, they had an enormous impact on breeding. Dwarf enthusiasts crossed the SDBs back to I. pumila, producing many charming hybrids, earlier blooming than the SDBs and quite distinctive in appearance, with ¾ of their genes coming from the dainty I. pumila. This became the standard cross to produce MDBs. The class was rounded out by selections of pure pumila ancestry, as well as hybrids from pure SDB breeding that happened to be small enough to fit the definition of the MDB class. These “runt SDBs” did not always meet with the approval of the dwarf purists, although there are a number of fine irises in this category. Indeed, in recent decades these MDBs from pure SDB breeding have come to quite dominate the class, in terms of sheer numbers as well as awards.

'Little Drummer Boy' (Willott, 1997),
an MDB from pure pumila breeding
In light of this history, one can understand why the DIS has remained rather protective of the little irises under its charge, and reluctant to muddle the boundary between the dwarf MDBs and the median SDBs; the dividing line between the classes was reduced to 8 inches in 1976, in part to protect the MDB class from SDB interlopers. It also explains the misgivings of many DIS members about merging with MIS, which has been suggested on a number of occasions. Any of the median classes might seem to have more cause to have its own society, given that they all have more new irises introduced each year than does the MDB class. Yet our history has set us apart, and perhaps it is the very fragility of the class in the face of the much larger (in numbers as well as stature!) median classes that inspires a certain connoisseur’s devotion amongst us.

'Pearly Whites' (Black, 2014),
an MDB from pure SDB breeding
In 2018, the DIS seemed on the brink of demise, with the president and vice president resigning, and the officers voting to merge with MIS. Rather miraculously, this was reversed in 2019, with a grass-roots rallying of the troops under the enthusiastic leadership of Charlie Carver, historic iris conservation advocate and devotee of MDBs. We now once again have a functioning society with a full slate of officers and a content-rich newsletter in final preparation for publication early this year. If you love dwarf irises and would like to be part of this renaissance, the DIS would love to hear from you!

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