Monday, January 9, 2023

A "Bittersweet” Win

 by Gary Salathe

Two years ago I contacted a landowner on behalf of the Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative (LICI), of which I am on the board of directors and a volunteer. His family owned land along Hwy 90 with a long stretch of road frontage near the town of Des Allemands, Louisiana. After noticing that this individual had put the family land up for sale, I was eager to connect with him. Iris aficionados, myself included, have been admiring the Louisiana irises in sections of the wet area in front of their property each spring for years. The wet area is really just a very wide ditch that allows rainwater runoff from the highway to drain away. Like most roadside ditches in south Louisiana, it usually maintains a few inches of standing water for most of the year. Wetland plants, including the Iris giganticaerulea species of the Louisiana iris, grow well in this ditch because it is basically a mini-wetland.

The "wetland" ditch along Hwy 90 near the town of Des Allemands is shown in April of 2021 as the Louisiana irises are blooming.

Throughout its history, the Louisiana iris has always been an important part of Southeast Louisiana's culture. This was not only because irises were abundant out in the marshes and swamps but also because they grew throughout ditches along the highways and roads in the region. If you were living in rural Southeast Louisiana back in the day, it would be very difficult not to see irises in bloom all around you.

This changed about 25 years ago when all of the parishes in Southeast Louisiana stopped using tractors to cut down plant material in drainage ditches. Instead, they began spraying ditches with a herbicide to keep them clear of plants and weeds. Spraying a herbicide is much more effective and cheaper than cutting the ditches to keep them open. Either way, the ditches must be capable of diverting rainwater runoff to keep it from backing up onto the roadway during heavy rains.

All of the parishes in Southeast Louisiana use an herbicide on rural roadside ditches to keep them clear of weeds and plants so they drain properly.

Here's an interesting side story: A few years ago, I found this 150' long stretch of highway near the small town of Chackbay, Louisiana with the only ditch that had not been sprayed with an herbicide by the state highway department for the entire twenty-mile length of  Hwy 20.  I was very curious about this ditch and its irises because not only had it not been sprayed with an herbicide, but also it hadn't even been cut that spring by the highway department.  

My curiosity got the best of me, so I pulled my car off the road and took this picture. I went to the front door of the small, ordinary brick-rancher house common to the area to see if a property owner was home; but they were not. The pickup truck in the driveway provided a possible answer: on the door was the logo for the state highway department. A couple of months later, I passed by the site and the ditch had been cut.

It seemed obvious that a person living there not only worked for the state highway department but also was likely part of the road maintenance crew.  It is a common practice for individuals to cut ditches on their properties while the irises are dormant in the summer and then stop cutting in the fall to allow the irises to grow all winter so they can bloom in the spring. By avoiding herbicide spray or cutting the ditch during the spring in front of his personal home, this lucky individual can enjoy the roadside irises during bloom season as everyone did decades ago over the entire length of Hwy 20. 

Back to the property on Hwy 90. One of the reasons LICI was formed was to try and get the Louisiana iris back into the public's consciousness after the irises had disappeared from the roadway ditches two decades ago. As they say, "out of sight, out of mind." We find irises that are threatened with destruction and relocate them to area refuges, nature preserves, and, in some cases, area parks

The Hwy 90 landowner's son had bush-hogged the ditch each year during the fall dry season as the irises were either dormant or had just begun their fall/winter growing season. Because of his cutting, the plants and weeds within the ditch had never been sprayed with an herbicide by the state highway department. It was the only stretch of highway not sprayed, so the area had become a mini-wetland bog full of native swamp plants, including the I. giganticaerulea Louisiana iris.

LICI volunteers are shown at an iris rescue event we organized at the Hwy 90 property on July 10, 2021 to remove irises from the ditch.

The landowner's son stopped maintaining the wet area once the property was put up for sale two years ago. The family has since sold a couple of parcels they created from the tract of land, and those new owners were not maintaining the wet area either. When we first contacted the son two years ago, he told me that he believed it was only a matter of time before the state would begin spraying the entire wet area to keep the drainage open along the highway since he was no longer cutting the ditch each fall. He encouraged us to get the irises out and relocate them to a safer location.

Over the last two years, LICI volunteers have held at least three iris rescues at the property, and obtained a total of about 3,500 irises from the ditch. The irises were planted in containers at our iris holding area to strengthen up and then were replanted into the wild in our iris restoration projects throughout Southeast Louisiana during the fall and winter.

Some of the Hwy 90 irises are shown being planted at the Lockport, Louisiana boardwalk on December 8, 2022 after spending a couple of months at our iris holding area.

I received a call in early October from one of our volunteers that lives in the area telling me that the iris ditch on Hwy 90 had been cut down to the bare ground. I assumed it was because the property had finally sold.  When I contacted the owner's son in the hope that he would give me the new owner's contact information, he told me that he had cut the ditch. He said he decided to bush-hog the ditch in front of the last parcel of land that had not sold "to make it look nicer". He recommended that we get out as many of the remaining irises as we could, as soon as we could.

We decided this was a very close call on the land being sold, and we didn't want to let too much time go by before we returned to dig the irises.

The "wetland" ditch along Hwy 90 near the town of Des Allemands, Louisiana is shown in October of 2022 after it had been bush-hogged by the owner's son.  The low area was totally dry for the first time all year because of a drought the area had been experiencing.  It usually holds between 4" and 8" of water.

I stopped by and visited the ditch two weeks later and discovered that the Louisiana irises were, in fact, starting to put out new leaves through the grass debris.  I quickly organized an iris rescue in the hope we could remove the remaining irises before the winter rains started and filled the ditch with water again.

Even with very short notice, I somehow managed to get five volunteers to help me dig the irises, including the oldest volunteer that has ever come out to one of LICI's volunteer events.  She was 87 years old (shown on the far left). I think she was insulted when at the start of the event I suggested she could do the lighter work of picking weeds out of the irises instead of the harder work the other volunteers were doing digging up the irises. She ended up spending the whole time digging irises.


The owner's son (shown on right) stopped by to check on us as we were digging the irises from the ditch on October 23, 2022. (The 87-year-old volunteer can be seen on the left hard-at-work and not wanting to waste any time chit-chatting.)

When the owner’s son came out to see how the iris rescue was going in October, he said he believed the next-door neighbor who had purchased one of the parcels from his family would allow us to dig the irises from his ditch, too. He encouraged me to contact him. It was on my list of things to do, but unfortunately, with LICI's schedule full of iris plantings, I didn't have time to do it.  This set me up to relearn a lesson I had learned a long time ago: When you find irises that are threatened with destruction, get them out as soon as you can. Just because they have been there for years doesn't mean something couldn't happen tomorrow to cause them to disappear.

The day we feared arrived in mid-November. The state highway department crew sprayed the ditch from one end to the other with an herbicide. As the photo shows, unrescued irises have turned yellow and will likely die.  Somehow, about 10% of the irises remaining in this area somehow missed being sprayed and have been spared.

The Hwy 90 iris ditch is shown two weeks after being sprayed with an herbicide in mid-November. The yellowed, dying irises can be seen in the center of the photo.

In trying to stay focused on the positive, I believe LICI's many volunteers who came out and worked hard to save the irises from this property during our three rescues over the last two years deserve a big pat on the back. I'm also thankful for the volunteers who helped plant many of them at our iris-holding area and then maintained them until they were ready to move out into the swamps. Then there are the volunteers that got down in the muck and planted the rescued irises from this property into the irises' new homes at area refuges and nature preserves. They deserve a big "thank you!", too.  Of course, none of this would have been possible without the support and encouragement of the landowner. "Thank you very much!" goes out to him. 

Getting most of the irises out is a bittersweet win because we left many behind. Even though we did not get them all, we'll still take the win. This whole story is a great example of what we do.

What the volunteers have done is a wonderful thing. Getting out a total of 3,500 irises from this property is something to be proud of. All of those irises would have been sprayed if we hadn't moved them out of harm's way. Instead of being destroyed, many irises were transplanted into new places like the Bayou Sauvage refuge in New Orleans, Cajun Coast Visitor's Center in Morgan City, the Grand Isle Nature Conservancy boardwalk, and the Lockport boardwalk where they are all living life large!

Some of the irises shown in the photo were rescued from the property along Hwy 90.  The photo was taken at the boardwalk in Bayou Sauvage National Urban Wildlife Refuge in New Orleans, Louisiana during the spring of 2021.


Some of the irises rescued from the property along Hwy 90 are shown blooming at the Cajun Coast Visitor's Center in Morgan City, Louisiana during the spring of 2022.


Some of the irises rescued from the property along Hwy 90 are shown blooming at the Nature Conservancy's boardwalk in Grand Isle, Louisiana during the spring of 2022.



Some of the irises rescued from the property along Hwy 90 are shown blooming at the Lockport, Louisiana boardwalk in the spring of 2022.

The LICI Facebook page can be found here, and its website can be found here: here

You can email me at:

Although LICI “is a bare-bones deal”, as I like to say, I'm quick to add that we can always use donations to our cause. We have a “Donate” button at the top of our website home page here.


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