Monday, November 1, 2021

Ben Hager’s Master Plan to Save the MDB Class

 by Tom Waters

Forty-some years ago, when I was a precocious iris-obsessed teenager, I convinced my mother that our vacation to California to visit my sister and her family should become a tour of iris hybridizers’ gardens. So it happened that I ended up in Ben Hager’s living room, with a huge bouquet of ‘Beverly Sills’ on the coffee table, talking irises while my mom and sister politely enjoyed the ambience and hospitality.

Hager presented a somewhat intimidating figure, with his bald head, precise beard, and dry wit. He was also something of an iconoclast. At an after-dinner speech at the 1980 American Iris Society convention in Tulsa, he basically dismantled the whole premise of the judges’ training program by asserting that judging irises was an utterly subjective undertaking; and we should give up our pretensions of authority and just let people like what they like, which is what we all do anyway.

As a hybridizer, Hager had few equals, in my estimation. He worked with all classes of irises, and won high awards wherever he turned his attention. He created the tetraploid miniature tall bearded (MTB) irises almost single-handedly, by sheer force of will, it seemed. Furthermore, he had a rare combination of creative, inspired vision coupled with solid knowledge, dogged persistence, and patience. I rank him along with Sir Michael Foster and Paul Cook as one of the true ground-breakers in the history of iris development.

Today, I want to talk about one of Hager’s grand projects, an effort to re-create the miniature dwarf bearded (MDB) class, a work that spanned four decades.

In the 1970s, new MDBs were created by hybridizers combining standard dwarf bearded (SDB) with the species Iris pumila in various combinations. There were basically three possibilities: pure pumila breeding, pure SDB breeding, and SDB x pumila crosses.

Hager rejected pure pumila breeding (although he did introduce one, ‘Ceremony’, in 1986) for two reasons. First, being just a single species, it lacked the genetic variety needed to get the innovative colors, patterns, and forms that hybridizers crave. Second, he found its growth habit (mats covered in bloom, like rock-garden plants) to interfere with the appreciation of the form of the individual iris bloom.

Hager also rejected the SDB x pumila route, although it was very popular with other MDB hybridizers of the time. The issue here was poor fertility. Seedlings from this type of cross show only limited fertility, and are almost impossible to cross amongst themselves, making line breeding an impossibility. Hager felt strongly that a class of iris can only be improved and developed if a fertile family can be established, so that breeding can continue for many generations without fertility barriers arising. He introduced no MDBs from this type of breeding.

That left pure SDB breeding as a recipe for creating MDBs. Hager recognized this as the path of greatest promise, but not without reservations. This is the type of breeding with the greatest variety of colors and patterns, and the most adaptable to mild-winter climates. MDB-sized seedlings do arise from SDB x SDB crosses, but they are the exception (most seedlings will be SDBs like their parents). Hager wanted a more focused program than just waiting for these happy accidents. He wanted a line of MDBs that would produce more MDBs, consistently.

He found his answer in his tetraploid MTB work. The tetraploid MTBs were derived from crossing tall bearded (TB) and border bearded (BB) with the species I. aphylla, a many branched iris genetically compatible with TBs, although much smaller. Crossing his tetraploid MTBs with I. pumila, he reasoned, would produce irises of the same chromosome type as the SDBs, but presumably consistently smaller. Furthermore, they would be completely fertile with MDBs from pure SDB breeding, part of the same fertile family. You may read one of Hager's articles on this plan on the DIS website.


Hager introduced the first MDB of this type, ‘Prodigy’, in 1973. Its pod parent is a seedling of TB ‘Evening Storm’ (Lafrenz, 1953) X I. aphylla ‘Thisbe’ (Dykes, 1923). The pollen parent is the I. pumila cultivar ‘Atomic Blue’ (Welch, 1961). It is thus ¼ TB, ¼ aphylla, and ½ pumila.

Next came ‘Libation’ in 1975. It is a child of ‘Prodigy’ crossed with a seedling of MTB ‘Scale Model’ (Hager, 1966) x I. pumila ‘Brownett’ (Roberts, 1957). Since ‘Scale Model’ is half TB and half aphylla, ‘Libation’ has the same ancestry breakdown as ‘Prodigy’: ¼ TB, ¼ aphylla, and ½ pumila. ‘Libation’ won the Caparne-Welch Award in 1979.

The third and final of these initial progenitors of Hager’s MDB line is ‘Gizmo’ (1977), with the same parentage as ‘Libation’.

Hager then set about crossing these (and similar seedlings) with SDBs and MDBs from pure SDB breeding. As such outcrossing progressed, the amount of aphylla ancestry decreased and the amount of TB ancestry increased. The goal was to retain the small size conferred by I. aphylla, but bring in the diverse colors and patterns of the SDBs. Hager now had a line of seedlings specifically designed to consistently yield fertile MDBs in each generation.

In all, this project produced 34 MDB introductions. Hager died in 1999, but Adamgrove garden continued to introduce his MDB seedlings through 2003. Hager also introduced 19 MDBs from pure SDB breeding, and the above-mentioned pumila ‘Ceremony’.

Here is a list of all 34, grouped by the amount of aphylla ancestry present in each.

25% I. aphylla

Prodigy (1973), Libation (1975) Caparne-Welch Award 1979, Gizmo (1977) Caparne-Welch Medal 1987

Between 12% and 24% I. aphylla

Grey Pearls (1979), Bluetween (1980), Macumba (1988)

Between 6% and 11% I. aphylla

Footlights (1980), Bitsy (1991), Cute Tot (1999)

Between 4% and 5% I. aphylla

Pipit (1993), Jiffy (1995), Self Evident (1997)

3% or less I. aphylla

Three Cherries (1971), although not part of this line, is listed here for completeness, since it has aphylla in its ancestry from the appearance of TB ‘Sable’ (Cook, 1938) in its pedigree.

Petty Cash (1980), Hot Foot (1982), Bugsy (1993) Caparne-Welch Medal 2000, Dainty Morsel (1994), Doozey (1994), Fey (1994), Fragment (1995), Hint (1995), Chaste (1997), Ivory Buttons (1997), Nestling (1997), Trifle (1997), Simple Enough (1998), Small Thing (R. 1998), Sweet Tooth (1999), Wee Me (1999), In Touch (R. 1999), Downsized (2001), Dulcet (2001), Pattycake Baker Man (2001), Behold Titania (2003), Fair Moon (2003), Gallant Youth (2003), Into the Woods (2003), Pirate's Apprentice (2003)

'Grey Pearls'
photo: El Hutchison
As far as I can determine, other hybridizers did not take up this project as Hager had envisioned it, although they did of course use a number of his irises in their own crosses. My own work with similar crosses has had mixed results. I cross tetraploid MTBs with pumila each year, but so far have only bloomed one cross to evaluate, MTB ‘Tic Tac Toe’ (Johnson, 2010) X I. pumila ‘Wild Whispers’ (Coleman, 2012). The seedlings were all too large for the MDB class, looking like elongated SDBs or MTBs with deficient bud count. So the MTB x pumila type of cross is by no means guaranteed to give MDBs in the first generation.

I do have an interesting MDB seedling from I. aphylla X I. pumila. This type of cross produced MDB ‘Velvet Toy’ (Dunbar, 1972). My seedling is 5-6 inches in height, and has a distinctive flowering habit. It is branched at the base like I. aphylla, with both branches bearing 2 terminal buds each. The four blooms open in succession, at the same height, with no crowding. It would be nice to see if this trait could be carried on to plants with a more refined flower. Crossing it with SDB ‘Eye of the Tiger’ (Black, 2008) gave seedlings that were SDB size or taller, though in a fun variety of color and pattern. I continue to make crosses with it, mostly selecting smaller MDBs to pair with it now.

So far, my work with I.reichenbachii X I. pumila seems the most promising in terms of giving me a consistent MDB line to work with.

Kevin Vaughn has reported good results using Hager’s ‘Self Evident’, and I have recently acquired this myself, as well as a few others from Hager’s line.

How should one assess this ambitious program? On some level, it can surely be deemed a success, as it gave Hager many successful and popular MDB introductions. Without detailed records from his seedling patch, however, it is hard to assess how consistent the line was or how much his selection work over the years contributed to the outcome. Perhaps similar results would have obtained just by applying the same selection effort to pure SDB lines.

'Self Evident'
photo: Jeanette Graham

We also have to note that Hager’s tetraploid MTB project is his most lasting legacy among the bearded irises classes. Tetraploid MTBs are here to stay, having been taken up by successive generations of hybridizers. The MDB project did not fare so well, although that may not be any fault of the plants themselves. Almost all new MDBs today are small selections from pure SDB breeding, not produced from MDB-specific lines as Hager envisioned. This may just be a numerical inevitability. There is so much work being done breeding SDBs that MDBs popping up in SDB seedling patches just can’t help but outnumber MDBs from the few dedicated lines that hybridizers have worked with. The situation is reminiscent of that of the BBs, where some good dedicated lines have been established, but they are still swamped by small selections from TB crosses, just because so many more TB crosses are made each year.

photo: El Hutchison
If you are interested in hybridizing MDBs, I encourage you to heed Hager’s wisdom and work toward MDB-specific breeding lines, perhaps using I. aphylla, perhaps carefully selected from SDB work, or perhaps using other species.

If you are not a hybridizer, but enjoy growing MDBs in your garden, please seek out and preserve the Hager MDBs discussed in this post. They are a window onto a fascinating thread of iris history.




  1. I thank Ben every day for his innovative hybridizing in both MDBs and MTBs. The initial crosses that Ben made with the then first tet MTBs were at a very early stage in their development. The tet MTBs have advanced greatly since and I think new tet MTB X pumila seedlings will eventually give us some new good germplasm. Terry Aitken's 'Easy Does It' is a sdb with lots of 'Self Evident; in the pedigree and it breeds MDBs rather consistently. I'm now in the third and fourth generation from it and the kids are wonderful!

  2. Thanks Kevin - great observation!


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