Monday, June 29, 2020

A Treasure From The Past - Jean Stevens

by Maggie Asplet 

For this article I was going to be a little nostalgic as I so missed my trip to Thomas Johnson at Mid-America Iris Garden, the visits to Lynda Miller's of Millers Manor, the wonderful visits to Chad Harris at Mt Pleasant Irises, but Melissa and Bailey from Smokin' Heights beat me to that topic.  So, here I am, still nostalgic and looking at Jean Stevens work.

I am currently the archivist for the NZ Iris Society and in this position have the job of making digital copies of all the files and came across an article that was printed in The Australian and New Zealand Iris Society bulletin, No. 2, August 1948.  I have chosen to reprint this article here, keeping with the theme of nostalgia. 

I was interesting to note the original author was from Gisborne now where I live.  Also, the photos in this post were not included with the original article; they are my contribution of the Jean Stevens irises I have growing now.  Sadly, over time many of Jean Stevens irises are no longer available.

'Sunset Snows'
Registered in 1963, so much later than when the original article was written in 1948.  This has just flowered recently for me, making it a re-blooming iris.

The Irises of Stevens Brothers
by D'arcy Blackburn, Gisborne, NZ

Mrs. Jean Stevens, eminent iris breeder from New Zealand, poses with AIS President Marion Walker in the Schreiner's Iris Garden, Salem, Oregon
One of my first visits to an iris garden was in November, 1933, when Mrs Stevens (then Miss Jean Burgess) was growing an extensive collection in her father's garden at Waikanae.  It was in 1921 that Mr A. H, Burgess made his first iris importations, the varieties received being 'Iris King', 'Rodney', 'Ballerine', 'Diadem', 'Bolingbroke', 'Lady Foster', 'Crusader', 'Azure', 'Isoline', 'Empress of India', 'Celeste' and 'Asia'.

These varieties are now so far back in the past, they will be recalled only by those who have grown irises for many years.

'Pinnacle' (1945) - 'Radiant Day' (1946) - 'Still Night' (1955)

As soon as these plantings bloomed Mrs Stevens made her first crosses and it was the encouraging results obtained from these that urged her to go more deeply into the study of plant breeding.  One of the earliest seedlings introduced from the Waikanae gardens was Harebell, still a worthwhile variety even today.  From my first knowledge of Mrs Stevens I was impressed by her very critical eye.  Raising seedlings for so many years she has consistently resisted temptation, if indeed such temptation has existed, to see her own creations through rose-coloured spectacles.  It is worth noting that even in the 1938/39 catalogue of Stevens Bros., issued from Bulls, there was not even on iris of Mrs Stevens' own raising listed amongst the novelties.  Nevertheless, Mrs Stevens went on hybridising more and more intensively until in the 1947/48 catalogue we find listed as many as seven new introductions of her own raising.

'Summit' - registered 1948

Last November, when bloom in my own garden was going over, I journeyed to Bastia Hill, Wanganui, when the Stevens nursery had been transferred from Bulls the year before.  Without exception, the irises were healthy, well-grown and blooming profusely.  Bloom was quite at its peak during my visit on the 8th and 9th and if some of the critics say that modern varieties are less floriferous than their ancestors, such criticism most certainly does not apply to the Stevens irises.  Conditions were anything but favourable on the first day of my visit, a thirty miles an hour gale blowing throughout the afternoon.  This was the first break in an otherwise most satisfactory season.  That Mrs Stevens has included substance as an essential quality in her introductions was very apparent on the following morning which broke bright and calm.  Her own varieties bore little evidence of the rough treatment of the previous day.

'Italian Joy', 'Hazel Grove', 'Cleopatra', 'Sylvan Song', 'Moonlight Sonata', 'Random Harvest', 'Royal Mission' and not least the widely acclaimed 'Winston Churchill', were all making a most impressive display.  A row of the last-named some twenty yards long, covered in beautifully smooth blooms of glowing dark pure red and copper, was a sight to behold.

'Winston Churchill' - registered 1941

'Sylvan Song' - registered 1947

Of the seedlings named but not yet introduced the bicolour 'Pinnacle' appealed very strongly with its large flowers on 3 1/2 ft (foot) stalks.  The standards are purest white with lemon-yellow falls.  Another, and one of the very latest, from the same lines of breeding was one of more intense colouring that has been aptly named 'Summit', having pure white standards and deep gold falls, very smooth, large and beautifully branched.  One that will prove extremely popular when it is introduced was 'Lilac Arbor', a very frilled and lovely lilac enhanced by a blue beard.  To make its bow shortly, the very broad-petaled Paragon of palest lilac pink with a pale cream beard made a striking picture.

'Foaming Seas' - registered 1957

Those seedlings already mentioned are some of the taller growers but Mrs Stevens is one of those who does not sacrifice all the irises of lesser stature.  'Gay Spirit' is a very smooth and even golden tan, a charming thing of 2 1/2 ft. and very clean.  In the very dark irises Mrs Stevens has two satisfying works of art in 'Black Belle' with standards of deepest ruby wine and almost black falls and 'Midsummer Night', a blue-black which is nicely frilled in both standards and falls.

'Black Belle '- registered 1947

Working on a number of lines in her iris breeding and with so much success achieved from Mrs Stevens' past efforts, there is no doubt whatever that we are going to see still further startling developments at Bastia Hill in the not too distant future.

Oh, how advertising has changed.  Also interesting to note, they were able to sell new irises from America, something that is now so difficult it is really considered impossible.  The requirements of our importing regulations is just too stringent, the rhizomes just would not survive.

NOTE: As this spring (October 2020) will be the first major flowering from my hybridising at Mid-America Iris Garden, I am very mindful of comments at the beginning of this article.  It is so easy to have rose tinted glasses when it is your own work.

I do hope you enjoyed my little bit of nostalgia.  My only regret is that I never had the opportunity to meet Jean Stevens.  There are some of our members who were more fortunate.

Editor's note: American English and UK English do have some differences in spelling and punctuation. We have not changed the article to American English.

1 comment:

  1. Great article Maggie,enjoyed learning about Jean Stevens a true NZ iris pioneer.


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