by W. Douglass Paschall, HIPS Preservation Chair

Irises disappear. They succumb to rot, or borers, or neglect, or gardener relocation, or a bad season; to changing tastes, or a plow or bulldozer. They die individually or in small numbers in scattered plots and corners, and when enough of that happens they vanish. On average, spread evenly across the past century and more for which we have records, we have lost – forever – more than one cultivar every day. That’s only the named, recorded, registered or introduced irises. We have no way to know the full measure of what we are missing. Of course, no one knew any of those identified varieties was being lost altogether at the precise moment it disappeared, but lose it we did, all the same. The treasured, enchanting iris our grandparents lost seventy years ago is gone, just . . . gone.

So is the one that we lost this morning.

Readers of the Historic Iris Preservation Society’s online forum in the winter and early spring of 2014 found themselves facing this issue as they careened between generous opportunities and disheartening setbacks. Offers from Europe to send cultivars that have not been seen in North America in decades, if ever, alternated with news that one after another commercial seller of historic irises was closing its doors for good. HIPS members participating in the discussions wondered if we could get everything offered from the one quarter, only to despair that we would ever again be able to get anything from the other.

At a time when any iris cultivar may be available only from one or two sources, or none, the revelation of just how precarious it is to collect, grow, and protect historic irises was illuminated last winter in sharp relief. Even when an iris could be found and given doting care, the ad hoc activities of legions of amateur gardeners over many decades still had done little to slow the loss of older varieties when novelty and change were the mantra of the day. To reverse such unintended declines would require a formal strategy and a more studied approach, to determine what was on the brink and to provide for those rarities an enduring sanctuary, preferably several, where they would be protected and preserved. The scale of the goal – to save for future generations all that we can of the remaining historic irises that past generations created for us – would entail the coordinated collective action of many participants.

On March 31, 2014, a first draft outlining just such an endeavor was posted to the HIPS Forum, to be debated and tweaked by all comers, and a network of sanctuaries, the Guardian Gardens, was inaugurated. Within weeks, eleven gardeners had signed on to the challenge, a number that has since grown. On December 4, the HIPS Board of Directors voted to formally embrace the Guardian Gardens program under its aegis. In a separate confirmation, the Board appointed me to the then-empty Cultivar Preservation Chair, which gives me the signal honor of presenting the new initiative to the larger membership and public in this issue of ROOTS. It is unquestionably an honor because this program is not a network of the idle. Before the Board had had a chance to take its vote, much had already occurred between March and December. Let’s look more closely at how this program works and what it does.

The Guardian Gardens program is a grassroots enterprise to set aside dedicated beds in private gardens, across geographic and climatic zones, for the exclusive purpose of saving the rarest of the extant historic irises of the world. While the program’s focus is the genus Iris, within that compass the sweep is wide, from the output of lesser-known breeders to the life work of our foremost hybridizers, from species of limited native ranges to the earliest cultivated varieties that survive to well-known irises, award-winners, parents of long iris lineages that simply have been overtaken by newer cultivars.

The project’s methods are as simple as its premise. Plants adopted into Guardian Gardens are grown expressly for increase and dissemination to other program participants and to botanical gardens, ensuring each variety the safety of numbers and wide dispersal in permanent, attentive care. After those core populations are thriving, further increase will be steered into public circulation with the greater exposure and appeal that their rescue brings.

While almost every member of HIPS has at least one uncommon plant or two in his or her collection, the first task was establishing what exactly ranks as a rarity and is close to disappearing. Fortunately, HIPS members had at their disposal two substantial data collections to steer Guardian Gardeners’ early efforts: a members’ databank of garden holdings and a commercial-sources spreadsheet of what’s available from nurseries. While neither resource was comprehensive just yet – the HIPS databank initially included the holdings of only one-tenth of HIPS’s members, and the commercial-sources records were only as accurate as the information that nurseries provided – they did provide a useful assessment of relative scarcities on which a first season’s efforts could concentrate. The priority for adoption into the program stressed those varieties that were most in danger, the irises that figured least or not at all on either listing. This still left thousands of irises to be sought.

Once a rare iris is found, the program calls upon participants to do what we all are already doing: nurturing plants that we love. Guardian Gardens adds to this a safety net – a network of communication and support, a means of measuring, documenting, and sharing accomplishments, and a dedication to make those achievements permanent. This transforms the haphazard and disturbingly porous process of genetic preservation we’ve had up to now into a systematic, secure, and increasing string of successes.

While the collective knowledge and experience of the program’s membership is available to any participant, each Guardian Gardens site (and ideally its owner, too) operates in obscurity for the security of its holdings – the paramount concern. A Guardian Gardener might choose to focus exclusively on rarities, but all who already have enlisted have wider iris collections. The only requirement in this regard is that the GG irises be protected, preferably in a separate bed that can be monitored regularly to safeguard against animal damage, human scavenging, borer or rot losses, and bee-pod adulterations of the irises held there. A GG member can be a hobbyist who cherishes privacy, a city-dweller with pots on a balcony, or the owner of a display garden whose Guardian Garden beds are tucked away, a secret garden, in a non-public area.

Guardian Gardeners are the custodians of a shared heritage, and there are certain responsibilities involved. Some modest record-keeping is required, to hold the safety net together. A short record page follows each rare iris throughout its life, logging the source from which it was acquired and verification of its identity, and tracking any increase and where that increase is shared. That information, along with a simple list of the rarities that any gardener holds and a map of their disposition in the garden, is submitted to the program administrator each year, so that the overall progress across many gardens can be measured and reported back to the membership, guiding future adoptions. Every participant, as the steward of his or her part of a shared botanical wealth, agrees also to write up a personal letter of intent to cover the dispersal of irises in the event the gardener is no longer able to take care of them.

In return, Guardian Gardeners derive the least material of benefits. No fame or glory, as they remain anonymous to safeguard the plants in their care. No wealth, beyond the irises that they hold for everyone, because the rarest of rare cultivars are shared at the cost of postage. Guardian Gardeners do what they do, garden and share, as a calling, a mission. Callings don’t come along often.

So . . . does it work? Let’s look at the record of the program’s first seven months. Concerted purchases from commercial sellers, from families of breeders, and from botanical gardens were more than matched by rescues of two noted private collections. A campaign of ongoing exchanges of irises with the Royal Botanical Garden in Ontario is already established, and similar efforts are planned with other public institutions on two continents. A databank of varieties adopted into Guardian Gardens in just this first season has been compiled, and it logs more than one thousand cultivars, in the hands of eleven gardeners. As this network grows, so will its achievements.

There is, in this enterprise, the potential for something that reaches farther, possibly much farther. If a project like this succeeds for Iris, a genus that has thousands of cultivars and is worldwide in range and habitat, it can work for other genera. We are coming to a time when preservation means survival of more than just a blossom that cheers us of a May morning. Guardian Gardens, in the narrow focus it takes now, or in broader forms it can assume, has the potential to alter what our children and grandchildren were expected to inherit. Now is a time not to be idle. It is a time for strategy. It is a time for a turnaround.

I mentioned some paragraphs back that I am your new Cultivar Preservation Chairman. Supporting the efforts of the Guardian Gardeners is expressly a part of my new bailiwick, but certainly not the only duty I will have. I am here to serve all of HIPS’s membership in many efforts, and in future issues of ROOTS I will bring more accounts of the ways we all, together, will meet this organization’s mission.

Read the Guardian Gardens FAQ and find out even more.

Email Doug Paschall at [email protected] to join the program

A Plea for Member Iris Lists

In my essay above, I noted that one of the data sources that Guardian Gardeners use to focus their efforts on our rarest varieties is the HIPS Member Databank, a census of what’s growing in the gardens of our members. The Databank Chair at HIPS  compiles the lists that members submit of their collections into a handy-to-use spreadsheet, and has way too much free time when only a small fraction of our membership heeds the call for their tallies.

The Guardian Gardens participants also have a harder time knowing what’s most in danger of disappearing forever, what they most urgently need to save, if HIPS members do not let the Databank chair know what they are growing.

Even if you do not want to join the Guardian Gardener network, you can still further their goals of saving historic irises for the generations that come after ours, with just a few moments of an afternoon or evening.

Please take those few moments, of a muggy, overhot afternoon or a rainy, stay-at-home evening, to write down with glee and deserved pride the list of all the iris wonders you have in your gardens, nestled in their ranks and rows or tumbling helter-skelter outside their beds. Then send that list to the Databank chair – see the Contacts page for mailing information or send it to [email protected]  A handy form for creating a list can be downloaded here.

For all that is good and wholesome in this world, give these people more to do. Thank you, from all who’ll benefit.