Wednesday, January 24, 2024

The Importance of Preservation

by Jeff Bennett

When I began growing irises in about 1991, I ordered from Schreiner's, Cooley’s and Stockton Iris Gardens. Only from catalogs. There was no “online” back then. Imagine that! Back then, not many historic (more than 30 years old) irises were offered. 'Wabash' was often the go-to historic iris you could buy. I didn’t even know there were thousands of other ones with names. I liked 'Wabash' because it was so old! I also bought more recent varieties that were less expensive; paying around $3-4 each.  Within a couple years, I purchased over 200 varieties.  'Jesse’s Song', a tall bearded iris hybridized by Bryce Williamson, had just won the Dykes Medal in 1991. It's now a Historic Iris. 

Tall bearded iris 'Wabash' (Mary Williamson, 1936)

Schreiners' Iris Garden Catalog, 1990

Tall bearded iris 'Jesse's Song' (Bryce Williamson, 1983)

Schreiner's Iris Garden Catalog, 1996

Stockton Iris Gardens' Catalog, 1997

As life continued, other important things like raising a family, running a business, and home improvement projects took priority. The irises existed out back but they were only paid attention during  spring bloom. Then, in 2003, we moved to a bigger house with a smaller yard. I dug a few of each variety and left the rest for the new owner to enjoy. I wonder how many are left there? The rhizomes I brought with us eventually got planted at the new home, but most of the names had been lost. As time elapsed, fewer irises were thriving in the hard soil you get with a newly built home.

Fast forward 10 years to 2013. I started working at a public garden that had previously been private since its establishment in the 1930s. There were irises scattered about the main beds near the cottage. Of course, there were no names attached to them. I thought some of the varieties I used to grow would look great in this garden. I remembered that an iris society (the Mt. Diablo Iris Society) always had a booth at a local street fair and offered many varieties of bare-root rhizomes for sale. I found their booth and bought about thirty varieties for the garden.  I recognized the names of some irises from my past, but most I did not. It had been 20 years. 

Next, I started searching online for more varieties. Yes, the internet existed now, and search engines helped me locate those older varieties. The problem was, I still couldn’t find most of the varieties I had before. All of the sellers I was familiar with were selling the more recent popular introductions. I like the newer things but wanted what I knew I liked before. Irises hybridized during the 1970s and 1980s varieties were hard to find. Why? Everybody wants the newest introductions, and to get them, they have to make room and discard those old ones. The same goes for the sellers. Planting space is valuable, and what doesn’t sell goes to the "heap" to die alongside other unwanted plants.

I joined my local iris society--Mt. Diablo Iris Society in Walnut Creek, California--in 2014. Then I heard about The American Iris Society and their Iris Encyclopedia of all irises ever registered. I was astonished to find thousands and thousands of listed names in alphabetical order. And many of them didn’t even have photos. Even the descriptions were vague, but the names were pretty cool. I wondered what they looked like?  I wrote a bunch of names down as my “LIST.” Now I know they must exist somewhere. Why would “THEY” let them disappear. The search was on.

I joined the American Iris Society in 2018 I believe, and then I discovered the Historic Iris Preservation Society (HIPS). Just by fate, I met two of its members (movers and shakers) at Dry Creek Garden, where I work. Dry Creek was one of the host gardens for the 2019 American Iris Society Convention in San Ramon, California. Nancy McDonald and Cathy Egerer both introduced themselves to me as HIPS members. They thanked me for having a separate Historic Iris Collection of about 200+ varieties that were blooming well for the Convention. I then also joined HIPS!

The HIPS publication Roots is sent to its members several times each year

Now back to my 1980s irises. I realize that yesterday's irises were like old toys. When gardeners grow tired of them, they want new ones. Fluffy, Las Vegas showgirl-style irises. Some believe nobody wants old irises. I do! They are important. They document breakthroughs in form, color, and size. The first amoenas, first luminatas, first glaciatas, etc., are the parents of what we have today. You shouldn’t just throw your parents out.

Thousands have been lost to time. Do you have 'Brown Betty', 'Grace Mohr', 'Tobacco Road', 'Avalon', 'Easter Candle', 'Bronze Brocade', 'High Heels', 'Xanadu', 'Zulu Warrior', 'Pin Up Girl', or 'Head Hunter'? Most likely, you have never even heard of these. 'Tobacco Road' is believed extinct and 'Grace Mohr' may also have been lost. We don’t know the exact populations of historic varieties but we have an idea of some of them. There are ways you can help. Take an inventory of all your iris varieties. If they are from 1994 or earlier, they are now historic. 

Tall bearded iris 'Cinnabar' (E. B. Williamson, 1928)

Border bearded iris 'Gay Hussar' (E. B. Williamson, 1925)

Once you have your list, join HIPS at Register yourself and your collection in the member databank. It’s very easy to enter your varieties. Even if you think your iris is too common, enter it. It may be common only in your area due to being shared over the fence with friends, etc.

Let’s make old irises less rare!

Arilbred iris 'Oyez' (Clarance White, 1938)

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Tom Craig in Three Acts

By Bryce Williamson

As I wrote in a blog about Sydney B. Mitchell, some of the important iris personalities of the past have faded from view and memory even though they were significant when alive and have contributed to the iris world through their creations and actions. Such is the case of Tom Craig (and family). The story of Tom Craig is like a play in three acts.

In the first act of the Tom Craig story, the focus is on Tom Craig as an artist. A graduate of Pomona College in the areas of botany and art, Craig gained a reputation as an upcoming artist in both oil and watercolor paintings as part of the California Group. Alfred Frankenstein, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle said that Craig was “one of America’s finest water colorists….the master of Mist and Water”. The phrase “master-of-mist-and-water” came from his technique of wet-on-wet, a style that he worked on continuously in California. Watercolors and oil paintings from Craig regularly appear on the market and prices run up to $5,000. Craig paintings are found in major United States museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In 1938 Tom Craig married Frances Stack. Both Frances and their five children (Tim, Ken, Ivan, Patricia Valesca, and F. Amoret) became an integral part of the iris hobby that turned into a business. The financial need to support his family led Tom Craig to teach at both the Chouinard Art Institute (later the California Institute of the Arts) in Los Angeles and the University of Southern California. Additionally, he grew irises for money, a hobby that continued throughout his life.

The second act of Tom Craig’s life happened when World War II broke out.  Craig applied to the War Department for a job as an artist war correspondent. He was hired in 1942 by Life magazine and was sent to Asia briefly. After his time in Asia, he was re-stationed in Italy to the frontlines, where he sketched and painted G.I.s in action.

Tom Craig’s third act took place after World War II, focusing mainly on botany and less on painting.

He moved with his family to Escondido, California, to a 250-acre (some sources say 350-acre) farm purchased before the war—land without a road or water. He turned to his love of botany and cultivated irises for the remainder of his life. He painted occasionally but turned the majority of his attention to raising hybrid flowers and experimenting in botany.

From this third act, the irises pictured below became important. Sadly, many of his irises are simply not cold-hardy enough to thrive in all areas of the country.

Looking at Craig parentages, he was using the best irises from his contemporaries. Irises from Hans and Jacob Sass figure in crosses as do irises from Fred DeForest, R. E. Kleinsorge, and Agnes Whiting. It can be said that he owed a huge debt to Mohr-Mitchell plants. Both named varieties and seedlings from Mohr-Motchell playing key roles in Craig's gene pool. Out of his work with Michell plicatas, Tom produced the early space age iris 'Bearded Lady' (T. Craig, 1955).

From his work with reds, 'Savage', 'Molten', and 'Bang' were widely popular and won AIS awards. 'Savage' proved to be an important parent for Tom’s friend Sanford Babson and figures in Schreiner irises. 

'Savage' (T. Craig, 1949)

'Bang' (T. Craig, 1955)

The early introduction 'Joseph’s Mantle' figures prominently in brown-toned plicatas. It was also a warm climate rebloomer and would even rebloom some years in New England. 'Gene Wild' was used by Schreiner's, Keith Keppel, and Gordon Plough. Ironically despite the name, Gene was female and part of the Wild and Son growers of daylilies and irises. That firm is no longer a family business. 

'Joseph's Mantle' (T. Craig, 1949)

'Gene Wild' (T. Craig, 1952). Photo by Jeff Bennett

A whole paragraph is needed for 'Mary McClellan'.  Registered as a Mohr-type arilbred and a winner of the C. G. White Award, it would not qualify for that award today since it lacks the required arilbred characteristics; however, it was used by many, including myself, in hybridizing. In the blue, violet, and white colors, his white 'Patricia Craig' (1962) also was widely grown.

'Mary McClellan' (T. Craig, 1952)

Tom worked in other classes of irises beyond tall bearded. His 'Moonchild ' won the Sass Award and when that award was raised to medal status by the AIS, it won again.

'Moonchild' (T. Craig, 1955)

Although Craig only introduced eight spuria irises, his nearby Escondido neighbor Walker Ferguson used several in his groundbreaking work with spurias. 'Blue Pinafore' (1950)  was one of the Craig introductions used.

For his work with irises, the American Iris Society awarded him the Hybridizer's Medal in 1962

'Blue Pinafore' (T. Craig, 1950)

One of the surprises of this piece is that I had expected to find many of Craig’s warm climate reblooming irises in the parentages of newer irises. So far, my research has not found that to be true.

In the post War World II boom in Southern California as agriculture gave way to housing, Craig ultimately sold the Escondido property and moved to Hubbard, Oregon. In 1969, the catalogue was done and irises ready to be sold when he suddenly died of a heart attack. Frances and family continued the business that year.

Schreiner's went to the garden and acqired over 20 seedlings that they later used in hybridizing, but the seedlings were without parentages. I have been told that his children and grandchildren are trying to find Craig introductions, but my efforts to contact his children have come to nothing. There is even a story that Craig may have raised some irises during the move from California to Oregon on Sanford Babson’s property in Covina, California, but no collaboration of that story has surfaced.

Tom Craig's influence on the world of irises continues today even if his memory has become a bit misty despite his wonderful efforts to popularize irises; his influence on painters through his years at Pomona College, Occidental College, the University of Southern California, and the Chouinard Art Institute is undeniable. He had been a major influence on the California Style, with his wet-on-wet technique.

Monday, January 8, 2024

Top Ten Iris Posts of 2023

by Heather Haley

As the new year begins, hybridizers are starting to announce their newest iris introductions. This makes me eager to return to garden activities and prepare for adventures to come. It is also a time for reflection. I am pleased to share the top ten most-viewed World of Irises blog posts of 2023.

Arilbred iris 'Perry Dyer'
Photo by Jeanette Graham

In tenth place, is the announcement of the 2023 William Mohr Medal Winner. The winner, arilbred iris 'Perry Dyer', was hybridized by Paul Black and introduced by Mid-America Garden in 2017. Other awards for this iris include an Honorable Mention in 2019, the Walther Cup in 2019, Favorite Guest Iris in 2019, Award of Merit in 2021, the Franklin Cook Cup in 2022, and Favorite Guest Iris in 2022. The iris is named for the late Perry Dyer, a well-known hybridizer from Oklahoma who was also involved in AIS activities during his youth. I had the pleasure of viewing this iris in New Mexico during the 2023 AIS National Convention in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The clump was impressive and memorable.

A rescued iris blooming at Nature Conservancy's boardwalk in Grand Isle, Louisiana 
Photo by Paul Christiansen

In ninth place, Gary Salathe shares the bittersweet rescue story of irises growing roadside on a property changing hands in Louisiana. Gary, like many others, had been admiring the irises that bloomed each spring at this location. Volunteers from the Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative (LICI) orchestrated efforts to dig and replant what they could before the irises became too damaged to survive.

An impressive clump of rescued Louisiana irises
Photo by Gary Salathe

In eighth place, Gary Salathe shares how Louisiana irises provide services to benefit the surrounding ecosystem. Gary describes Louisiana irises as "consuming huge amounts of overabundant nutrients found within the swamp water, humus soil, and muck that comes from decaying matter." Although I have long known Louisiana irises to be heavy feeders that appreciate soil amended with manure, I never thought of their potential to remove excess fertilizer in a water system. The potential for using irises to mitigate environmental damage is both beautiful and fascinating. 
Right to left: 'Black Lipstick', 'Royston Rubies', and 'Chihuahuan Desert'
Photos by Jeanette Graham, Mid America Garden, and Howie Dash 

In seventh place is the announcement of the three winners of the John C. Wister Medal for 2023. I inherited one of these tall bearded cultivars from my mother, Alleah, when she downsized. A second was purchased shortly thereafter, and the last joined our garden this fall.  All are beautiful, and I look forward to enjoying their bloom for many years to come. 

Filling livestock troughs with layers of soil and compost.

In sixth place is a piece by Jeff Bennett that describes preparing beardless iris beds at Dry Creek Garden in Union City, California. This garden is an oasis of nature and beauty about an hour south of where I grew up in California. Jeff has been hard at work as the official Gardener, and if you find yourself anywhere near the East Bay Regional Park District, consider stopping by to visit the Dry Creek Pioneer Regional Park. If you happen to arrive during iris bloom season, you are in for a treat. 

Heather Haley with her mother Alleah, and husband Chris, exhibiting the family's unusual "crop" at the Spring Ag Fest in Pittsboro, North Carolina

In fifth place, Alleah and I describe our strategies for creating an ideal environment for irises using affordable and sustainably sourced potting soil. Peat moss is frequently used in commercial potting mixes, but I'm starting to see coconut coir products while shopping in niche garden centers. So far, I have not spotted any potting mix containing rice hulls. 

Iris container garden

In fourth place, Doug Chyz shares his experience and advice for growing irises in containers. This is a highly useful skill for any iris grower. If you grow irises long enough, you will receive an iris, have limited time, and have absolutely no idea where you will plant it. If your iris needs a temporary home for resale, a 1-gal pot will do. However, like Doug, I prefer 3-gal pots and have about 225 purchases of rhizomes acclimating to life in North Carolina this way. 

'Indecisive' (P. Black, 2023)

In third place, Mel Schiller shares memories and pictures of a visit to Tom Johnson and Kirk Hansen at Mid-America Garden. Mel photographed and described several of the 2023 introductions she saw there, including 'Indecisive', a tall bearded iris with variegated foliage. It is a sibling of 'Pie In the Sky' (2021), another variegated novelty iris introduced by Paul Black. The siblings are children of his iris 'Variegated Wonder' (2014). 

In second place, Andi Rivarola shared a preview of the Winter 2023 edition of IRISES: The Bulletin of the American Iris Society (AIS). Receiving IRISES is one of the many benefits of AIS membership, and it is published quarterly. Wonderful, full-color images are dispersed throughout, as well as articles that describe the activities of the AIS, growing and hybridizing different types of irises, reviews of show gardens, awards of top irises, people in the iris world, information about conventions, iris shows and administration the organization. Visit the AIS website to see the index of all issues, and the AIS library (1920-2018) or e-member service area (2019-current) to read what interests you.

Tall bearded iris 'DON'T DOUBT DALTON' 
Photo by Jeanette Graham

In first place, is the announcement of the 2023 American Dykes Medal. The winner, 'Don't Doubt Dalton' is a tall bearded iris with horns/spoons and broken color, hybridized by Tom Burseen and introduced in 2015. Other awards for this iris include an Honorable Mention in 2017, Award of Merit in 2019, John C. Wister Medal in 2021, and Favorite Guest at the 2023 AIS national convention. For those outside the iris community, I often describe irises awarded the Dykes Medal as winning the "Miss America of Iris." Thank you to all who maintain accreditation as AIS judges, dutifully evaluate irises growing in the garden, and cast your votes.  I, like my mother and grandmother before me, am now an AIS judge and will vote my first official ballot later this year. Until then, join me in celebrating American Dykes Medal Winner 'Don't Doubt Dalton' as the 2024 Iris of the Year

Monday, January 1, 2024

Update from the AIS Youth Program

by Heather Haley and Carolyn Hoover

Carolyn Hoover sharing the love of all things iris
Photo by Dinah Oppenheim

We are pleased to share exciting news from the American Iris Society (AIS) Youth Program! Carolyn Hoover recently accepted an appointment as the new Youth Chair for this program. Many thanks to Cheryl Deaton, past youth chair, for her many years of dedication and support of the AIS Youth. Over the years, Mrs. Deaton helped Carolyn learn about assisting youth to develop their knowledge of iris culture through AIS activities.

Planting irises with AIS Youth in Region 14 
Photo by Carol Eshelman

If you have children or grandchildren, they can get involved in the AIS as a youth member to participate in fun and rewarding iris-themed contests. During 2024, youth under the age of 19 can become members for $12 with a printed IRISES bulletin, and $8 per year without. Visit the AIS membership page to print the invitation to join (ITJ) form and mail it with a check, or click here to pay by credit card.

Once a youth joins AIS, they are eligible to participate in the AIS Foundation's Ackerman Essay Contest and the AIS Youth Coloring Contest. No matter which AIS Region you are from, it is not too late to submit entries! The deadline for the coloring contest was extended to January 31, 2024 and essays are due in June


Youth Coloring Contest Entry Form

If you know an active AIS Youth member with outstanding achievements please consider nominating them for the 2024 Clark Cosgrove Award. Nominations can come from any adult AIS member, and the due date is also January 31, 2024

Nominees for the Clark Cosgrove Award must:

  • grow their own iris garden with a variety of irises, 
  • attend shows and regional meetings, 
  • participate in club activities such as meetings, sales, and shows, 
  • be a good member of their community, 
  • enter AIS Youth Contests such as the annual Coloring Contest and the AIS Foundation's Ackerman Essay Contest, and 
  • promote the American Iris Society.

Feel free to reach out to Carolyn if you would like to submit nominations or a coloring contest entry. Also, she is happy to answer any questions about the exciting and updated AIS Youth Program and any 2024 contests. With your help, we can help youth enjoy the wonderful world of irises too!

Carolyn Hoover, AIS Youth Chair

45812 Old Corral Rd.

Coarsegold, CA 93614