Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Salt-tolerant Pacific Iris, or Choosing Voles & Birds Over Cats

by Kathleen Sayce

Mowing the upper edge of the marsh along the Washington State U.S. coast on Memorial Weekend, I found a flowering iris growing among taller grasses. 

A saltwater-tolerant PCI in the upper salt marsh

Lest you think I was mowing native and/or sensitive salt marsh species, let me reassure you:  I was mowing ivy, gorse, and reed canary grass. The last is one of a group of big grasses with thuggish tendencies, and the first two are obnoxious weeds in many areas. These species grow along the upper edge of the salt marsh, and collectively tolerate salt water on the highest storm tides each winter. I dodged two native plants:  seawatch clumps (Angelica lucida, a tall carrot family wildflower) and edible thistle stems (Cirsium edule). 

Almost hidden in taller grasses, this PCI was a delightful surprise

This iris is a small, species-like Pacifica iris of unknown parentage which looks most like a PCI of unknown origin that I planted in the mid-1990s, though that plant has larger, wider petals and darker flowers.

Salt water covers this spot several times each winter on the highest storm tides—it grows in a saltwater inundation area. Iris tenax and I. douglasiana both live in salt spray zones along the coast. I will keep the taller grasses down around it, and see how long it lives here. The salt tolerance is a surprise. 

How did it get across the driveway and into the marsh? Voles are the probable suspects; they live abundant and prolific lives in the marsh and garden—and in our garage, cars, and occasionally, house. It is likely that a vole filled its cheeks with ripe iris seeds and dashed off across the driveway to stash them in the marsh.

Get a cat, you say. 

My reply:  I would rather have a garden with ground-nesting birds. 

There are two areas in the garden where Spotted Towhee and White-crown Sparrow nest. The adults pop out to complain when I mow nearby, and grow quite insistent if I weed too near nests, which tend to be under large clumps of Pacifica iris. Which of course means weeds grow unchecked in those areas for much of the summer, and that favors voles! 

Monday, May 22, 2023

68-110 : (Ponderosa X New Moon) or the summit of the art

By Sylvain Ruaud

A perfume creator first imagines a new fragrance and then gathers the ingredients he will use. Next, he formulates the subtle mixtures that will constitute his latest creation. When creating new irises, hybridizer Joe Ghio must proceed similarly. 

No doubt he has in his head - but also in his documentation - all the elements of a formidable "gene pool" gathered over his long career in iris hybridizing. Joe knows what each piece can bring, and he visualizes what he hopes to obtain from each cross. No doubt he sometimes fails, for nature preserves its mysteries and knows how to mete out its surprises. But these failures are obviously not known to us. We only see, with admiration, the successes that a hybridizer achieves. Each year there are a handful of them, which makes the gardener in each of us ecstatic. Practiced with such mastery, hybridization is no longer the exercise of curiosity or leisure but the expression of applied science.

Among all the vials that this alchemist manipulates, there is one that appears many times in the complex pedigrees that often accompany the descriptions of his novelties: it is (Ponderosa X New Moon). In Joe Ghio's crypto-catalog, it appears with numbers 68-110. It is divided into many "bottles" identified by a distinctive letter, and there must be at least twenty of them, each corresponding to a plant whose colors and characteristics are known only to its breeder (and perhaps to a few friendly insiders).

Let's get to know each of the elements of this mystical cross.

Photo by Joe Ghio

'Ponderosa' (Ghio, 1970) = (Denver Mint X Moon River) is a flower that does not necessarily attract attention. It is described as "petals pinkish brown; sepals a mixture of brown, purple and red; beards yellowish brown." Ghio would tell us the qualities he finds in it because he is confident it must not lack any! He crossed it with many varieties, very varied in appearance but mainly in shades of yellow or apricot: 'Travel On,' 'Gracie Pfost' (the only one that is red), 'Debby Rairdon,' 'Honey Rae,' 'Orange Chariot,' 'Ghost Story,' 'Saffron Robe,' 'Peace Offering,' and 'Opening Round'.

'New Moon'
Photo by Heather Haley

'New Moon' (Sexton, 1968) = (Moon River X New Frontier) is universally known. It is a bright yellow from yellow and pink. "Unicolor lemon yellow, lemon-yellow beards," describes the AIS checklist. It has been used extensively in hybridization in all parts of the world for many years. Joe Ghio was one of those who used it the most over several generations.

The cross (Ponderosa X New Moon) is one of the essential elements of Joe Ghio's palette. It is found in several combinations, of which the following one, which has been used very frequently and which is listed, if I am not mistaken, under the number 71-147P : ((((Commentary x Claudia Rene) x Claudia Rene) x Ponderosa) x (Ponderosa x New Moon)). Here is a variety whose genealogy extends over four generations. We notice a first crossing at the beginning: (Commentary x Claudia Rene). Then the product of this crossing is crossed again with 'Claudia Rene.' In the next generation, a new element is added; this time, it is 'Ponderosa'. Finally, the product of this last crossing is paired with an unnamed variety but noted under the number 68-110 and written (Ponderosa x New Moon). 

This kind of combination, which becomes more complicated with time, is classic for Joe Ghio because, to use our example, 71-147P was later married several times. This is how one thing leads to another; we arrive at 88-129R2, where we reach the eleventh generation since our 68-110, twenty years earlier. And since 1988, a lot has happened, and there have been many crosses!

Over the years, the pedigrees become longer and more complex because Ghio does not bother to register - and therefore to name - all the seedlings he finds exciting and keeps. Where some registrants are satisfied providing two names joined by an X, Ghio lists the different components of each member of the cross, sometimes in the form of a simple seedling number, sometimes with the designation of the varieties used. Is this a strategy? 

Indeed, not describing (nor photographing) a seedling preserves to this one a part of the mystery, which is voluntary. It is a way to keep a secret of manufacture! This also has the advantage of detailing the path of the breeder toward the registered variety. On the other hand, it has the disadvantage of giving a long list, not easy to decipher. And it is at this point that we realize the finesse of Joe Ghio's work: we follow the evolution of his thought, we note the touches of this or that color or this or that horticultural quality added (or subtracted) to reach the goal he has set.

It is the work of a great man. Only a few can master many parameters, maybe three or four. If we can compare them to great perfumers, we could draw a parallel with composers like Mozart, Wagner, or Mahler. At this degree of perfection, hybridization is no longer a game but an exceptional science and art.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Growing Irises Out East: Celebrating Mother's Day

 By Heather Haley

My mother Alleah Haley enjoying iris 'Saturday Night Live' in bloom
at Winterberry Gardens during Mother's Day Weekend 2023

My mother, Alleah, and I find ourselves celebrating Mother’s Day on a road trip. We are returning from Winchester, Virginia, to North Carolina after spending this weekend with about 50 other members of the American Iris Society: our “iris family.” Last month, all three of Alleah’s daughters, one son-in-law, and additional iris family members enjoyed “iris Christmas” together during the 2023 AIS national convention in Dallas, Texas. 

Alleah and her children at the
2023 AIS National Convention in Dallas, Texas

Today Alleah and I are subject to preferences of the navigation system inside her car. It did not select the highly scenic, meandering route known as the Blue Ridge Parkway. Instead, we are traveling the path of greatest efficiency. Listening to Alleah, you wouldn’t know the difference. She is soaking in the scenery all the same.

Many of the gently curved roads Alleah and I traveled looked like this. Maintenance crews
frequently use special boom-mounted tractor implements to ensure good visibility around curves

National Park Service Photo, Public Domain 

During our drive, Alleah often exclaimed how beautiful her surroundings were. You see, Alleah loves all things living and green: including but not limited to trees, grass, ferns, and irises. Irises with rhizomes are, of course, her favorite… and she is easy to please. A sizeable clump of tall red bearded iris caught her eye, but it passed too quickly for me to get a good look. She recognized the form as historic, and we quickly chatted about possibilities etched in our memory. I ask, “Do you think it was ‘Indian Chief’?” My mother responded, “No. It was a self (pattern).” We know the proper procedure for identifying an unknown iris but enjoy conversing to pass the time.

Historic bearded iris 'Indian Chief' displays a bitone pattern.
The veined maroon standards are much lighter than the falls.

My mother fancies any interesting combination of roots, trunk, stems, leaves, or petals. Immediately after iris activities of our weekend ended, Alleah insisted on finding a garden center for us to patronize. While visiting the Spring Valley Farm Market, she fancied a 4 in. pot containing pink petunia, purple veining, and a lime green edge. I found a hanging basket with the same and decided she needed that instead. 
Alleah and I used a seatbelt to secure her new hanging basket for the drive home.

With Alleah's Mother's Day basket now riding in the back seat, we decided to stop for some antiquing. In 2011, I found a glass vase labeled "Iris and Herringbone" in an antique store and kept it in our guest bathroom until sending it to Alleah for Christmas. My husband Chris grew fond of it, and suggested we hunt for a vase of our own. The flowers look more like lilies, but we don't mind this too much. Artist rendition aside, I still like the name. Many antique stores, auctions, and festivals later, I am pleased to report the iris and herringbone collection is ALMOST complete. Mom and I found a coaster for my collection just up the road from where we bought the hanging basket. HORRAY!

Heather's Iris and Herringbone depression glass collection in 2014
Iris and Herringbone coaster purchased with Alleah on Mother's Day 2023

The August 2023 issue of the Region 4 Newscast will describe the iris gardens Alleah and I saw during the spring regional meeting. For now, enjoy some pictures, and I hope you found unique ways to enjoy and celebrate Mother's Day too.
Award-winning iris show entries on the Queen's Table at the 2023 Region 4 Meeting

Siberian iris 'Cesar's Brother' in bloom at the
Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, Virginia

Cat greeting visitors at Iris Hills Farm in Middletown, Virginia

Irises in raised beds at Winterberry Gardens in Cross Junction, Virginia

Tall bearded irises 'That's All Folks', 'Queen's Circle', and 'Absolute Treasure'
at Meagher Gardens in Middleburg, Virginia