Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Growing Irises Out East: Celebrating New Milestones

 by Heather and Alleah Haley

Heather's husband, Chris, once told her, "You can grow all of the irises you want if you can make money doing it." Four years after launching our backyard nursery operation, Heather is pleased to share, "We pulled it off!" Our multi-generational iris obsession produced a tiny net profit for the Broley Homestead at the end of 2023. Full disclosure: the effort yielded pennies per hour when all our time was fully accounted for. This is common for new farm enterprises, and we are pleased to celebrate profitability as a small business milestone. It gives us hope that maintaining an half-acre iris collection will be financially sustainable. 

In 2023 we took irises to our local farmers market for the first time.

The labels we use for potted irises in the spring are equally useful for bare-root rhizome sales in the fall

We continue to expand the number of community events and public plant sales we take irises to. Earlier this month, Alleah and Heather traveled to Laurel Hill, North Carolina, for an invited presentation to the Cottonland Garden Club. The presentation "Irises in the Garden: A Month-by-Month Calendar" was inspired by a question asked while Heather and Alleah volunteered at our local Cooperative Extension office. Another volunteer asked a deceptively simple question: "How do I care for my irises?" At the time, the best answer the mother-daughter duo could come up with was "It depends."

Alleah labeling bearded irises in July

Chris dividing beardless irises in September.

Irises are a relatively low-maintenance perennial, but they do require care. Our gardens are home to a curated collection of 1,200 named cultivars that span 15 of the 16 horticultural classifications recognized by the American Iris Society. What we do and when varies greatly depending on the quirks and preferences of each plant type. Having a knack for organization and creating educational materials, Heather crafted a region-specific, month-by-month calendar outlining the method to our madness. We have given this presentation several times to local libraries, and patrons say they loved it. Recently, Heather was invited to present the calendar program for our local AIS affiliate and the Cooperative Extension group that initially inspired the program. It will be an honor to finally share our best possible answer on a vast topic.

Volunteer work helps our business live its purpose: to preserve, support, and sustain. We thoroughly enjoy sharing our passion and love of irises with the public. Alleah, Chris, and Heather share personal commentary and stories about the plants, and customers seem to appreciate our insight. The following are some varietal notes about the top ten sellers for the Broley Homestead during 2023. 

'Dusky Challenger' (Schreiner, 1986)

In tenth place is a garden rockstar: 'Dusky Challenger'. The first time Heather entered an iris show, she brought a stem of this with her. The show was held in a mall; and while transporting her blue ribbon entry back to the car, several people wanted to buy the stalk. 

When we say this iris is a rockstar, we mean it! 'Dusky Challenger' won the American Dykes Medal in 1992. In 25 of the past 29 years, 'Dusky Challenger' was voted #1 as the favorite iris in Tall-bearded Iris Symposium voting. Alleah believes we could sell every rhizome of this iris we could grow; it's that good. 'Dusky Challenger', "probable child of the . . . famous 'Titan's Glory' (Schreiner '81), has all the outstanding qualities with more intense, deeper color saturation and even better, more highly refined form." [Perry Dyer, writing in the IRISES Bulletin No. 263 (October 1986)]. When she lived in California, Alleah routinely gave iris rhizomes to her coworkers. She rarely could convince folks to keep the irises name-labeled, but "the near-black one," be it 'Titan's Glory' or 'Dusky Challenger', increased so much with regular horse manure fertilizing that one recipient couple had it blooming all over their three-acre rural property in just a few years. 

'Bermuda Triangle' (Anna and David Cadd, 2000)

In ninth place in sales was 'Bermuda Triangle', a space-age border bearded (SA BB). While the general public tends to be somewhat reluctant to buy "novelty irises," 'Bermuda Triangle', with its horns at the ends of the beards, is a vigorous grower with a striking color pattern. It won an Award of Merit for border bearded irises from AIS judges in 2006. This award honors the top 1% of irises introduced during the previous three to five years. 

Broley Homestead is pleased to distribute this introduction of Alleah's close friends, Anna and David Cadd of Healdsburg, California, even more widely. 'Bermuda Triangle' increases well and thrives in the North Carolina climate. Although our peers on the East Coast often say that irises from the West Coast don't do well, this hasn't been our experience. It certainly isn't the case for this eye-catching median selection or many others purchased from or gifted by our West Coast friends.

Again and Again (Sterling Innerst, 1999)

In eighth place was reliable rebloomer (RE) 'Again and Again', a tall bearded (TB) iris. Our customers are really surprised when we tell them that some irises can bloom twice, both spring and fall; so reblooming is a strong selling feature. However, we like to share with customers that rebloom behavior requires both a genetic trait and favorable cultural conditions. When most irises are resting in the summer, a rebloomer is firing up for another round of bloom. Gardeners who provide nutrients and water to rebloomers in the summer are more likely to enjoy bloom again in the fall. 

'Stairway to Heaven(Lauer, 1993)

'Stairway to Heaven' placed seventh among our 2023 sales. This iris won the American  Dykes Medal in 2000. It tended to rebloom in California, mainly when grown under a nighttime security light, as Alleah did at her workplace. It isn't known to rebloom in North Carolina. One of Heather's friends planted it under the porch light at her back door, but this may not provide enough wattage to prompt rebloom. We can hardly wait to situate some West Coast rebloomers under a security light to see if we can get rebloom here.

'Sicilian Orange' (Michael Sutton, 2016)

Sixth place 'Sicilian Orange', also a TB, grabs public attention, whether in the garden or in a photograph accompanying the plant at an iris sale. The striking combination of deep orange and wine in this bitone is delightful. It won an Honorable Mention in 2018 and an Award of Merit in 2022, and is under consideration as an iris that deserves two (or more) growing spaces in our production field. We don’t have any pots of ‘Sicilian Orange’  available for 2024 because we sold every extra rhizome we had of this variety last fall. 

'Sharp Dressed Man' (Thomas Johnson, 2010)

'Sharp Dressed Man,' in fifth place, is a child of the 2010 American Dykes Medal winner 'Paul Black', and bears a similar but perhaps even more stunning red beard than that of its parent. It absolutely screams, "Look at me!" For those who appreciate irises that share names with song titles, this one is sure to make their list. This tall bearded iris forms impressive clumps with many increases in our production field and consistently produces bloom stalks we enjoy taking to spring iris shows. As you might expect, American Iris Society judges consistently cast votes for this one. 'Sharp Dressed Man' won the highest award specific to tall bearded irises, the John C. Wister medal, in 2016.

'Immortality' (Lloyd Zurbrigg, 1982)

Fourth place 'Immortality' (TB RE) is one of the most reliable rebloomers wherever we've seen it growing. Its hybridizer Lloyd Zurbrigg focused on breeding reblooming irises and 'Immortality' was one of his most successful introductions. Alleah recalls reading an account that 'Immortality' bloomed during five months one year in one garden. Our customers certainly picked a good one here! The pure-white self pattern coordinates well with other iris colors and patterns making it a wonderful addition to any iris collection.

'Gypsy Lord' (Keith Keppel 2006)

'Gypsy Lord,' was our third most frequently sold iris and is another striking American Dykes Medal winner, this time in 2015. Its red, white, and blue color combination has been a somewhat elusive goal of iris breeders, brought to fruition here by the highly honored hybridizer Keith Keppel. The red-orange beards against the white center and mostly blue falls quickly catch the attention of customers. Keith's creations won the American Iris Society's top award, the Dykes Medal, eight times over the period, 2004 - 2021. Except for 2021 when two Dykes Medals were awarded to make up for no awards at all during Covid year 2020, only one iris has been awarded the American Dykes Medal each year since 1927, and it was not given in several years for various reasons. 

'Carved Pumpkin' (George Sutton, 2012)

'Carved Pumpkin', an intermediate bearded (IB) iris, was our second highest seller. This iris increases well, so we had many pots and rhizomes to sell. Our cousin Wendy loves the color orange and, like the public, she is attracted to any iris featuring orange coloration. The color of iris blossoms is influenced by soil pH. Try increasing this by adding bone meal or decreasing pH by adding acid fertilizer such as azalea/camellia food to see which intensifies flower pigment.

'Titan's Glory' (Schreiner, 1981)

'Titan's Glory', another American Dykes Medal winner, this time in 1988, was our overall best seller in 2023. Like many of the Dykes winners, this tall bearded iris is a vigorous grower and produces many increases in our garden. The original Schreiner’s catalog described it as "a fantastically sumptuous silken Bishop’s purple self," and it is. 

We often wonder if Perry Dyer was correct in his assertion that 'Titan’s Glory' was one of the unknown parents of  'Dusky Challenger'. Genomic testing for irises is possible, and we know scientists in laboratories who could help. However, the price-per-sample is rather high and we would need to sell many more irises than we do now to absorb the cost.

For 2024, we continue trying new things and sharing the joy of irises. Heather spent the winter upgrading the Broley Homestead website, and Chris engineered new protective structures to transport plants to market. Alleah has been hard at work creating metal labels for guest irises at three gardens near us. All hard work, but each new milestone is cause for celebration.

Thank you to all who have helped us learn and grow. 

New website categories make navigation much easier  

Utility trailer upgrades help us get irises to market

Monday, March 11, 2024

Stamp Out Binomial Abuse!

 by Tom Waters

It is said that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. One manifestation of that pervasive truth is slapping botanical names onto plants where they don't belong. Is it perhaps the urge to seem erudite, or the mistaken notion (propagated in school biology classes), that every organism has a species name, or just unthinking propagation of error, dripping down through the years?

'Absolute Treasure'
Please don't call me I. germanica

I present a list of the four types of irises often identified incorrectly with a botanical species name that does not correctly apply to them. Each of these types is a group of hybrids with ancestry from multiple species. There is no need for a botanical species designation for hybrids of complex ancestry. The tall bearded iris 'Absolute Treasure' is best described---as I have just done---with the classification and registered cultivar name. If classification is clear within context, it can be left out. If one feels more botanically inclined (as might be the case if writing for a technical publication), the correct designation is the genus name in italics, followed by the cultivar name: Iris 'Absolute Treasure'.

Identifying a hybrid with a particular species is not just annoying to those of us with a pedantic streak but can lead to real confusion. People who want to acquire actual species out of botanical interest or for hybridizing, for example, can be sent down time-wasting rabbit holes by this practice, and it is even worse when false botanical names end up in published pedigrees and official descriptions.

So, let's look at the major offenders:

1. Referring to all Siberian irises as Iris sibirica or Iris siberica. This error is reinforced, I think, because of the similarity of the classification name to the botanical name. Most Siberian iris cultivars are advanced hybrids involving I. sibirica and I. sanguinea. The 40-chromosome Siberians do not involve I. sibirica at all.

'Katharine Hodgkin'
Please don't call me I. reticulata

2. Referring to all reticulata irises as Iris reticulata. Yes, there is a species, I. reticulata, sold in the bulb trade and grown in gardens. However, the horticultural group known as reticulata irises includes hybrids and cultivars from a range of species, including I. histrio, I. histrioides, and I. bakerana. Many of Alan McMurtrie's colorful recent hybrids involve I. danfordiae and I. sophenensis. Once again, I think the fact that the common name for the whole group ("reticulata irises") is so similar to the species name I. reticulata is largely to blame for the confusion.

3. Referring to all dwarf bearded irises as Iris pumila. Although the species I. pumila is important in the background of modern dwarf bearded irises, most cultivars are advanced-generation hybrids involving I. pumila and tall bearded iris cultivars in various combinations. Modern standard dwarf bearded (SDB) and miniature dwarf bearded (MDB) irises are far removed indeed from the species. I think part of the problem is that pumila is the Latin word for "dwarf," so people who are not botanically knowledgeable believe they can just translate the term "dwarf iris" to Iris pumila.

Please don't call me I. pumila

4. Referring to all tall bearded irises, or sometimes even all bearded irises of any type, as Iris germanica. Tall bearded irises are advanced-generation hybrids involving many species, most prominently I. pallida, I. variegata, and various tetraploid plants from the Eastern Mediterranean, such as I. mesopotamica. Botanists have differing views about how to apply the name I. germanica, which is unfortunate since it is the type species for the genus Iris. The plant given this name by Linnaeus is a natural hybrid of the intermediate bearded (IB) type. The approach taken by Warburton and Hamblen in The World of Irises is to regard this as a cultivar, not a species (thus 'Germanica'), and to avoid using the term I. germanica entirely. On the other hand, Mathew in The Iris broadens the term to encompass an assortment of similar plants, including many identified as distinct species, such as I. cypriana, I. trojana, and I. mesopotamica. Even taken in this broad sense, however, I. germanica does not include the modern tall bearded hybrids. Given the confusion around using this species name, the best practice is to avoid it in favor of more specific designations for particular plants and populations. Sadly, the use of I. germanica for tall bearded hybrids has become entrenched through generations of misuse, and it is continued unthinkingly by nurseries worldwide.

As a final aside, names that look like species binomials are sometimes used for groups of hybrids. For example, hybrids of I. domestica and I. dichotoma are referred to as Iris ´norrisii, and Iris ´hollandica may be used for Dutch Irises. Note that the "´" is a necessary part of these names. Furthermore, the Latin name for the hybrid group should never be identical to the name of some particular species.

Be wary of these widespread but incorrect uses of botanical names. They not only make it difficult to identify plants correctly but also add to a general confusion concerning the hybrid nature of popular groups of garden irises.