Monday, April 26, 2021

THE IRIS LADY OF ZHITOMIR: Nina Miroshnichenko

By Sylvain Ruaud

Today the countries which made up the Soviet empire have become, behind the United States, the largest suppliers of new varieties of irises. It was only after the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the "Iron Curtain" that this exceptional development took place. But this does not mean iridophilia didn't exist there before these events. Despite considerable difficulties in obtaining western varieties capable of providing the necessary elements for their work, passionate gardeners made crosses and obtained irises which, although they did not reach the level of evolution and the quality of western varieties, demonstrated that they had genius. Nina Miroshnichenko cannot be overlooked in this context. Indeed, long before the disappearance of totalitarian regimes and the opening towards the West of what was once the USSR and its satellites, she had devoted a large part of her life to iris hybridization.

Antonina Opanasievna Miroshnichenko was born in the Kiev region of Ukraine on November 13, 1914. She therefore only knew the communist regime in her country and in neighboring Russia. She became interested in horticulture during her university years as she studied at the Kiev College of Agriculture (now an entity of the National University of Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine). As was fitting she subsequently worked as an agricultural engineer in Zhitomir (in Ukrainian: Житомир, in Russian: Житомир, in Polish: zytomierz), a large garrison town in western Ukraine a town that over the centuries experienced a complicated existence, passing from Poland to the Russian Empire, before becoming part of its current nation. She married an officer of the Red Army, but continued her work as an engineer nonetheless, especially in the city of Uzhgorod (in Ukrainian: Ужгород; in Russian: Ужгород; in Hungarian: Ungvár; in Romanian: Ujgorod, in Slovak: Užhorod), another city in western Ukraine, on the border with Slovakia, also very marked by Slovak, Austrian, Polish, Romanian and Hungarian influences. She lived there until 1956, before returning to Zhitomir where she remained until the end of her life, at age 95, in 2009.

Was it the historical traces of the more western regions of Europe, or the inevitable contacts with the neighbouring states of Uzhgorod that led her to become interested in plants that were little known in her country of origin? In any case, as soon as she returned to Zhitomir, she began to hybridize gladioli and lilies, then irises. Circumstances, as one can imagine, did not allow her to come into contact with the few other iris lovers in the Soviet empire, so she remained a maverick of hybridization. She gradually acquired extensive knowledge of genetics and for many years pursued her little path as an enlightened amateur. Taking care to stay away from the events that marked the Stalinist and then Brezhnevian years, she hybridized only for her pleasure, without any idea of competition. As soon as it was possible, she occasionally sent some of her offspring to the West; it was more to find out if her work was worthwhile than to win medals! At some point she made a few dozen recordings of her crosses but  gave no indication of origin. Perhaps she had her own doubts about the varieties she used for hybridizing knowing the adventurous conditions under which American varieties were obtained at the time.

Her family, who religiously protected her work, counted nearly two hundred varieties preserved, even though only 41 were regularly registered. The greatest moment of glory for this production came when, in 2007, 'Soloviniyia Noc' won the FRANCIRIS © competition. I lived the moment when Milan Blazek, the great Czech irisarian, who speaks perfect Russian, called her on the phone to announce the victory of her iris, and I heard in the voice of this very old lady the joy and emotion of this remarkable consecration. Perhaps, indeed, it is Nina Miroshnichenko's masterpiece. It is an original iris, with light purple petals hemmed with white, and dark purple veined sepals. The plant is beautifully sized, healthy, robust, the flowers, well proportioned, numerous and long lasting. Everything you need to make a competitive iris. But a few other of her irises deserve to be mentioned. I think of 'Sladky Greh', of 'Novoye Vrema' - little cousin of 'Bride's Halo' -, also the spurred pink 'Anatoly Solovianenko', and of the very elegant inverted amoena 'Nebo Angelov'. And lastly of 'Doktor Gorbachev'. I also like 'Khmuroye Utro', an original smoked mauve, but now showing its vintage age.

All these irises, some of which have found their way in some western gardens, are still available in Ukraine, where hybridizers like Igor Khorosh have used them in their crosses (such as the mauve 'Rozpriahaite Khlotsi Konei' which comes from 'Pliaska Sniezhynok' , a majestic pure white iris). They are also well known to Russian and Polish collectors.

Our world of irises is filled with surprises that curiosity makes us discover with pleasure. Nina Miroshnichenko is one of them, and paying tribute to her is a duty but also a pleasure.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Tools for the Iris Garden

 By Bryce Williamson

I have tools for the iris garden that I need and use every day. Recently, I decided to ask the members of Facebook's Iris Lovers group what their favorite tool was for the gardening. Here is a sample of the answers.

Mitch Jameson, from Missouri, has several tools he finds essential: “A 4 tong strong potato/garden fork preferably made somewhere other  than those weak cheap ass things  from China that break and bend so easily; a good 1-2 gallon sprayer for spraying fungicide for leaf spot; a Marshalltown smallish trowel or a good knockoff, sharpened each side for pulling weeds; and a long strong spade to dig deep to turn soil.”

Laura Ann Browning likes “Cobrahead. Short and medium handles.” This is a new product to me.

Heather Grace Haley Broberg  noted that she liked “using OXO kitchen shears to trim iris leaves. I do this when dividing, and to minimize leaf spot. They are easy to separate to clean and sanitize and the grip is very comfortable for extended use.”

Bonnie Perozzi Doolittle has relocated her irises to Oregon and writes: “I would be completely lost without my small size shovel. I am short so this little shovel is just perfect for you. I have them scattered all around so I don’t have to carry them place to place.”

Renee Fraser, former editor of the AIS’s World of Irises blog, wrote that “My favorite garden tool is the spade for shovel pruning non-performing irises!”

Delane H Langton also listed a number of “must have” garden items: “Ergo stainless fork and shovel. Scissors gloves and ergo trowels.” He noted he “may have acquired the remaining US stock of them.”

Ben Lawn’s “absolute favorite piece of garden equipment are my Felco model 9 secateurs. They are incredibly well constructed; I can buy every component as spare parts. Best of all I’m left-handed, and the model 9 is constructed in reverse compared to regular secateurs so they are much easier for a left handed person like me to use.”

Vanessa Spady wrote “I would love to share with you my favorite garden tool because I could not live without it, especially when I’m working with my iris. Iris RN “on your knees“ plant. I can’t do very much with them when I’m standing up, so I don’t use my standup tools for them, I use this odd ducky. I can use it as a garden fork on one side, and as a spade on the other side. I have a good leverage with it because it’s short handled on the ground. And best of all, I can control where I’m putting it because I’m up close, and I almost never (almost) hit an increase or buried rhizome because I’m down low. No idea what it’s called, but this is what it looks like.” I have been told that this is a planting mattock.

Gail Simmons commented that her “favorite iris gardening tools. A potato fork and smaller long handled spade." I had to look this one up and found "Potato forks have flat-fronted triangular-section tines. They are not so good for digging over the soil. They are for gentle diagonal probing and lifting of root crops and tubers from relatively loose soil. They do less damage than the same person with a digging fork.'

Lynda Miller, a well known iris hybridizer now in Oregon, noted “Garden shears (modern version of sheep shears). Can trim foliage for hours without getting tired. We turned Thomas Johnson on to them.”

Lucy Burton wrote short and sweet to the point, “Cape Cod weeder.”

Marilyn Schuster Kiger says her “best tool yet is my Japanese hori hori knife. I can cut, divide, dig deep rooted weeds, lift plants. Strong metal with good balance and wood handle. My go to garden tool.”

Since I started this, I must mention my most important weeding tool—an O-ring hoe. I like it because I can precision weed and there is something infinity satisfying with I feel the snap of the root on the despicable weed. Sadly, this hoe does not seem to be made anymore and I keep going through handles trying to make this O-ring hoe last as long as possible.




Monday, April 12, 2021

Iris douglasiana in Atlanta, Georgia? Oh My!

Kathleen Sayce, April 6, 2021 

   In the current issue of the Rock Garden Quarterly, North American Rock Garden Society (, Raleigh Wasser, horticulture manager, writes about a rock garden at Atlanta Botanical Garden ( Heat, summer rain, and humidity are inevitable in this location, thus this rock garden is a test area, not for alpine plants from around the world, but for tough plants that demonstrate rock garden style, in Raleigh’s words “creating alpine vistas at sea level.” 

Raleigh likes irises, (sensible woman), and writes about irids that do well at ABG, including several Sisyrinchium species, Alophia drummondii, Herbertia lahue ssp. lahue, Iris pumila, and Iris douglasiana. I read that paragraph several times, then wrote the editor of RGQ to ask Raleigh for details about the last species.

I. douglasiana flower, photo from 
Raleigh Wasser, ABG

The Iris douglasiana selection came from Garden in the Woods ( ) in 1993, and was a tiny grassy tuft of leaves when Raleigh started at ABG. In the past few years it has grown and bloomed. I asked if it has set seed, and have not heard back. Raleigh sent me a few photos, and yes, the flower details in the photo show this is clearly an Iris douglasiana type PCI. 

This was confirmed with several SPCNI members who grow, hybridize and judge PCI, Bob Sussman, Garry Knipe, and Debby Cole. 

The miracle is that it grows in Atlanta at all. 

Boulders in the rock garden are from midtown Atlanta, 1989, from a building excavation. The soil is sand mixed with local red clay and topped with pea gravel. 

Iris douglasiana label and foliage
at Atlanta Botanical Garden. Photo 
from Raleigh Wasser, ABG

Slopes are 15 to 30 degrees. This long arc of rock and well drained soil faces south-southeast. Atlanta is zone 8a, with 52 inches of rain per year, hot humid summers and cold winters. 

So, by chance, this rock garden has neutral to acidic soil, the soil is well drained, and has a very tough I. douglasiana species-type selection that can weather the humidity and year round precipitation. I would not have bet money this could happen, but it has. 

Irisarians, from beyond the regions where PCI naturally grow, take heart from this success:  Excellent drainage in neutral to acidic soil, summer rainfall, and a tough PCI all came together to thrive in a Georgia rock garden. This environment provided just enough of the right conditions. 

For more on growing PCI, check the SPCNI website’s gardening information at, which offers tips for climates outside the West Coast. 

Thank you to Raleigh for writing about ABG and including comments on irises. 


Monday, April 5, 2021

Iris Photo Essay: Ready for My Close-up

By Mike Unser

 A large part of my enjoyment of my historic iris collection is in photographing them, and one of my favorite aspects of photography is the macro shot. Really getting in close and looking at the texture or the structure of my favorite garden flower, and how the sunlight plays over and thru the petals never ceases to fascinate me. Here is a selection of photos I took during the 2020 bloom season that really caught my eye when examined more closely. We had a cool rainy spring the in PNW, which made the colors deeper and richer, and this also presented many opportunities for capturing the beauty of rain or dew on the blooms. But most important is the light - the flowers show their true glory when lit by the sun. It brings out the sparkle of the diamond dusting and gilded threads, highlights the lines in the architecture of the bloom, and makes the colors glow with a jewel-like depth. Inviting us to slow down and drink in the beauty of these marvelous flowers.