Monday, February 26, 2024

The 1922 Conference

by Sylvain Ruaud

Anyone familiar with the history of iridophilia knows that it originated in France in the early 19th century.

The first cultivated variety of iris, by Mr. de Bure, dates back to 1822, and it was this event that gave
Philippe de Vilmorin the idea for a world conference on irises. At the time, Philippe de Vilmorin was a
leader in the iris world. He was a flamboyant figure whose presence and activity, as well as his work as a plant breeder, gave him unquestionable authority. The idea of an international conference dates back to 1914. Philippe de Vilmorin had his project submitted to the SNHF's Floriculture Committee by his loyal partner Séraphin Mottet, the man who actually carried out the cross-breeding his employer had imagined, but of course, although the project seemed attractive to everyone, events prevented it from coming to fruition. It wasn't until 1921 that the same Séraphin Mottet, still devoted to his late boss, revived the project. The year 1922 seemed an appropriate one to convene the proposed conference, as it was the centenary of the appearance of the first cultivated variety of iris.

France had thus been the cradle of garden irises, but since M. de Bure's initiatives, things had changed
dramatically: first Great Britain, then the United States, had followed in France's footsteps, and even in
America, the iris phenomenon had already grown to such an extent that France's position was quite
reduced, the war having interrupted the work of our hybridizers, while those in America had continued
their research and, as a result, taken the lead over their European colleagues. The idea of putting our
country back in the competition, by placing it at the origin of an original and prestigious initiative, was
bound to be a hit with French horticultural and botanical authorities. So Philippe de Vilmorin and
Séraphin Mottet's project took shape. An ad hoc committee was set up within the SNHF (Société
Nationale d'Horticulture de France) to take charge. It decided that the conference:
- should be international;
- should cover all known and cultivated categories of iris;
- would bring together the most eminent specialists, who would contribute with papers and materials;
- a plenary session would be held in Paris in the spring of 1922.

The Conference was enthusiastically supported by the world's leading Iridophiles, i.e. the English and
Americans, since at the time the Germans were in disgrace and other countries had not yet been hit by the wave of Iridophilia. Among the foreigners who answered "yes" to the French proposal were Arthur Bliss, William Dykes, Alice Harding, Amos Perry and George Yeld for Great Britain, and Grace Sturtevant and John Wister for the USA. On the French side, the most prominent participants were Messrs D. Bois, F. Cayeux, F. Denis, L. Millet, S. Mottet, A. Nomblot, A. Nonin, J. Pinelle, M. Turbat and the de Vilmorin family.

The Conference Board was appointed in November 1921 and comprised Messrs Bois, Chairman, Dykes
and Wister, Honorary Chairmen, Cayeux and de Vilmorin, Vice-Chairmen, Guillaumin, Mottet and
Pinelle, Secretaries, and Millet, Vice-Secretary. These were the most important people in the iris world at the time.

The plenary session took place on May 27, 1922 at the SNHF headquarters in Paris. The discussions were lively and interesting, with the French not always in agreement with their English-speaking colleagues, but a consensus was reached on all the subjects debated. In particular, it was decided that the Americans would be responsible for registering the names and characteristics of all varieties appearing in the world.

They still exercise this prerogative, and it has become an essential function. Of course, all participants then went to the major nurseries in the Paris region to admire the new varieties of Messrs Cayeux, Millet, Nonin and Vilmorin (1). It's worth noting that the flowering season was a little later then than it is today, when irises bloom a fortnight earlier.

The proceedings of this conference were recorded in a book entitled "Les Iris Cultivés", published by the SNHF in 1923.

It was a great event, but had no immediate follow-up. The Commission des Iris was not active again until 1927. The Conference itself never met again until the International Congress in Orleans, once again organized by French irisarians, in 1978, and even then our American colleagues didn't show much interest in this event, so it didn't have the impact of the 1922 Conference, which remains a unique event in the iris world. It's true that these days it's not necessarily necessary to bring everyone together. Exchanging messages or holding a videoconference can achieve the same result! Nevertheless, a meeting between colleagues from all over the world would be of irreplaceable human interest.
(1) The novelties of 1922 are few and not among the most interesting:

At Ferdinand Cayeux, the only one of any renown was the superb dark garnet 'Peau Rouge'; but 1922 also saw the launch of 'Jean Chevreau', a brown plicata on a cream ground, and 'Le Grand Ferré', an unusual tawny-brown color. At Armand Millet, visitors were able to admire 'Simone Vaissière', a remarkable aniline-blue amoena, while at Auguste Nonin the star of the year was 'Odette Olivet', a bright pink single color tinged with lilac. As for Vilmorin, still reeling from the death of its brilliant owner, 1922 was not the best year for them, and the two registered varieties, 'Thésée' and 'Timothée', left no trace.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Sometimes it takes a village to push you over the goal line!

by Gary Salathe

This story is about a modest Louisiana iris restoration project that my non-profit, the Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative (LICI), took on in 2021, how it grew a little in 2022, and then exploded this winter into the largest project we have ever done. 

This is a cautionary tale for those who think that when an unexpected opportunity presents, you MUST take it. You'll see how, in the end, I was glad we did, but between the idea stage, the commitment stage, and the end stage, there were numerous times when my small core group of volunteers seriously questioned whether to continue. However, at each of these times another group would appear and volunteer to help, thus encouraging us to push forward to the goal line.

Sneak preview:  At the end of the six-week effort, we had rescued and replanted 9,400 Louisiana irises. Yes, that's nine-thousand-four-hundred individual iris plants!


This photo from January 2021 shows the first irises being planted into the iris bog project in Fontainebleau State Park near Mandeville, Louisiana. We had to hand clear some bushes and brush to make space available for the irises to grow. 

The project started when I discovered a swampy area near the picnic pavilions in Fontainebleau State Park just outside Mandeville, Louisiana. It looked like a great place to plant some of the LICI's rescued irises.

I thought it fit well with our program to have native wild irises growing in public areas so that the blooming irises could be viewed by the public. This would further our goal of raising awareness of this beautiful native Louisiana plant. The iris bog would also be a place for the irises to multiply independently without any maintenance. They would then be available to be thinned out in the future for use in other iris restoration projects inside and outside of the park.


As the video above shows, by 2022, the iris bog was doing so well that it moved up to the #8 spot on our ranking of places to see native irises blooming in southeast Louisiana.

The video also shows an area on the right where we had not cleared the brush by hand because the ground level was so high that it was unlikely the irises would do well. Instead, we planted a few hundred more irises in the bog during the winter of 2022 to fill up the last areas that held standing water most of the year.

We expected a very nice bloom in the bog in the spring of 2023, so it moved up in the 2023 ranking to the #4 spot. However, a late freeze knocked back many flower buds, and we had a disappointing bloom.

 This photo was taken within a day of a hard freeze that caused the flower buds to wilt, fall over, and die.

Then something interesting happened. The park manager was promoted, moved on, and was replaced by an intern park manager who was very interested in the whole iris ranking thing. When I told him that his iris bog was ranked #4 in the state as a place to see native irises blooming, he shocked me by replying, "Well, we'll need to do something about that!" He asked me if he cleared out the area of brush on the right side of the bog and lowered the ground level, would we fill up the space with irises? I told him we would try our best, but it all depended on how many irises we rescued later that year.

Then something else happened. We had been putting multiple postings on Facebook about the iris bog and how we now needed to rescue many more irises to fill this new space. We received a message through Facebook messenger from someone who read the postings that directed us to a remote area of the park that she thought held thousands and thousands of these irises. I was skeptical but located the pond in question, and sure enough, there were likely tens of thousands of irises growing along its bank! (The video above shows only one of the areas of irises growing along the pond's shoreline.)

I found a 20-foot high dam holding in the pond's water. It allows the pond to be well above the water level of a nearby bayou, which connects to Lake Pontchartrain.  We figured out that because of the pond being at a higher elevation, the pond and its irises had escaped for years, maybe even decades, from being hit with saltwater storm surges flowing up the bayou from the lake due to the hurricanes or tropical storms regularly hitting or brushing past the area.  The dam and height of the pond protected the irises and created what we now call the Jurassic Park of Irises!

We were all set to start planning how to collect about 2,000 irises, once we had permission to do so, from a drainage way where they were interfering with water getting into the pond. We believed it would only be a matter of time before the park's maintenance crew would come with equipment to clean the out drainage way.

 Since the very beginning of our planting irises in the bog, we only had about 40% of the bog available to us. A more significant portion of the bog, seen in the distance, was covered in brush and trees that were 10 feet tall.

Then something else happened. A new manager was hired. After giving her some time to settle in, I called her to see if we could meet at the iris bog so I could fill her in on its history and what we had been discussing with the intern manager before he left.

During the on-site meeting, she asked why we were only interested in clearing the small area on the right side of the bog of brush when there was so much other available land that was part of the bog that could be cleaned up, too.  I replied that I thought it was the largest area of the bog that the park's crew would be willing to clear.

She called me about two weeks after our meeting and asked if we could meet at the iris bog again. She said the ground was dry and hard because of the drought the area had been experiencing, "so we cleared out a little more of an area than what we had talked about," she told me.

Fontainebleau State Park Manager Jennifer Wallace during the meeting when she showed me that her crew had cleared the entire bog.

It turns out that while she was home sick for three days, her maintenance crew thought they would surprise her by clearing the entire bog that didn't have any irises growing in it. As I stood there with her, looking out over the great expanse of newly cleared land and trying to get my head around it, I muttered, "How much of this can we plant irises in?" Her response was very simple, but it took a while for it to sink in. "You can plant the whole thing!" she replied.

So, seeing an opportunity that might never come again and knowing that I had the irises to do it in the bag, so to speak, but they all needed to be dug up first from the Jurassic Park of Irises, I started rallying the troops to see if it was even possible to pull this whole thing off.

The offers started coming in to help once I had contacted every group that had helped us in the past at the park

Unfortunately, the first winter rains ended the drought before we could plant the first iris. It filled the entire bog with water, making it almost impossible to plant any irises since their rhizomes float. After discussing this with the park manager, she had her maintenance crew install a 4" pipe under the driveway that acted as the bog's dam so that we could drain the bog. 

After another volunteer and I dug up a trailer full of irises from the Jurassic Park of Irises, the US Coast Guard's Chief Petty Officer's Guard's association planted them the next day. (Photo above.)  They planted an impressive number of irises, but they had hardly put a dent in the space we needed to fill. It was clear this would require an eating an elephant approach; "one bite at a time." 

The next day, volunteers from the St. Tammany Master Gardeners Association and workers from Gulf Corps/Limitless Vistas dug up additional irises from the rescue site. We collected quite a haul of irises with this increased number of volunteers.

Two days later, with the threat of severe thunderstorms coming, a group that included people from the community, Wild Ones - a native plant group, and once again members of the St. Tammany Master Gardeners Association, got all of the irises planted. The last iris went into the ground 30 minutes before the storms hit!

But there were still wide-open areas of the bog that needed planting. Around this time my core LICI volunteers and I were starting to get worn out, and we began to quietly question if we had bitten off more than we could chew.


Then something happened. The big guns came to the rescue! Our friends at the non-profit Common Ground Relief hosted 22 student volunteers and their leaders from Saint Paul's Catholic Student Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They were in New Orleans for a week of habitat restoration work. Common Ground Relief then included our Fontainebleau State Park iris restoration project for two days the group would be in town.

They dug up an incredible 5,000 irises from the Jurassic Park of Irises on the first day. (Shown above in the video.)  Then, equally unbelievable, they planted every last of them the next day! (Shown below.) 


Now we were making progress and filled up all the available space in the newly enlarged iris bog. 

Well, almost all of it. When we first started, one of the park's maintenance guys asked us to leave a 30-foot-wide strip from side to side through the center of the iris bogs. He explained that they had talked about extending a driveway along one side through the gap in the irises. Since the park manager was out of town and we were not able to discus it with her, we decided to leave the 30' strip without planting any irises in it.

Just as we were finishing up multiple days of patting ourselves on the back for pulling off what seemed impossible, the park manager came back into town and was shocked to see a 30' wide gap in the middle of her iris bog! She called us, saying that no driveway extension was needed, and asked if we could fill the space with irises. We were able to put together one last group to do the job. 


We did an iris rescue two weeks later and a planting event the following day at our Nicholls State University Project using workers from the Louisiana Conservation Corps. We ended up with 2,200 irises left over because the planting was slow due to the soil's clay content. So, on the third day, we took the irises to Fontainebleau State Park, and with the last iris they planted, they filled up the 30' wide gap! (Photo above)


We plugged up the 4" drain pipe a week ago, and most of the bog is now holding water, as we had planned, to keep the weeds and brush from coming back.

This addition of the last 2,200 irises and the 7,200 Louisiana irises the other volunteers had planted over the previous six weeks meant that we had planted an incredible 9,400 irises this season into the bog! It's safe to say it is now completely full of irises. These irises have been added to what were likely 2,500 irises growing in the bog we had planted since the project started in 2020. That means there are now almost 12,000 irises growing in the bog!

The iris bog in Fontainebleau State Park was ranked #4 in our 2023 list of places to see native irises blooming in south Louisiana. We are curious if the irises we planted this year will bloom in a few months because we planted many very late in the season. However, we won't be surprised if enough bloom it will move up to the #3 spot this year and to the #1 or #2 spot in 2025. 

We are so thankful for receiving all the help needed to complete the job! Here is a list of groups where the volunteers came from with links to some of their Facebook pages or websites that we would like to thank:

We'd also like to thank the staff members of Fontainebleau State Park who prepared the site and helped us drain it when it flooded before we could plant the irises. We appreciate the visit, remarks, and thanks given to one of the volunteer groups by Jennifer Viator, state-wide Interpretive Ranger for the Louisiana Department of State Parks, and Fontainebleau State Park Interpretive Ranger Stephanie Huber.   And, of course, a big "Thank You" goes out to Fontainebleau State Park manager Jennifer Wallace.
 Sometimes, it takes a village to push you over the goal line!
Information on the species of Louisiana iris that were planted can be found here:
The LICI Facebook page can be found here.

You can email me at:

Although LICI is a "bare-bones deal", as I like to say, I'm" quick to add t" because we can always use i'mnations for our cause. We have a "Donate" button at the top of our website's homepage.