Article: Historic vs. Modern TB’s

by Joe Spears

A lot has been made lately of whether or not in the quest for more lace, more ruffles, new color breaks, horns, flounces and other revolutionary developments, that hybridizers are sacrificing vigor, disease resistance and durability. Also are they taking the time to test their new creations for performance in a wide range of climates; i.e. will they perform throughout the country and, today, throughout the world? Complaints are common from home gardeners and irisarians alike that the newer varieties are not as dependable as the irises of the past. They are more susceptible to rot, leaf spot, borers or they don’t hold up to the heat or cold depending on region. Are these complaints new or have there always been iris introductions that had these same problems? I would guess that the historic irises available today represent about twenty percent of those introduced more than thirty years ago. What happened to the other eighty percent? Hmm! Were they just “thrown over the back fence” as their space was needed for the latest and greatest?

At Argyle Acres, we grow both historic and modern irises. Any iris new to our garden (historic OR modern) must not only survive but thrive for at least one complete cycle of seasons before it is even considered for inclusion in our catalog. We made an exception to this rule recently regarding one variety in particular. It thrived from the moment we placed it in the ground in September. The increase was astonishing. This performance continued through the winter and on into early spring. The plants were lush and beautiful. We began to understand why it was so popular beyond the beauty of the blooms and felt it truly deserved all the attention it was getting both domestically and internationally. We decided to offer it in our catalog at a premium price. It was blooming beautifully during our garden tours in April and everyone ordered it regardless of the price. We were pleased with our decision to make this one exception. We checked our inventory and had plenty to cover the orders to be shipped in late summer. Then one day in late June we were inspecting the field and noticed that our wonder plant (don’t even ask…) was not looking so good. That was just the beginning. Every bit of this plant just dried up and died. As it turned out, we ended up refunding customers’ money for about ninety percent of those ordered. It didn’t like our hot Texas summer. All that survived were the shaded ones in the show gardens. Lesson learned.

And yes, we have had fifty year old plants that didn’t appreciate the sweltering heat either. But I must say the old ones we grow require less attention. We have the historic plants segregated from the “new” (less than 30 years old) plants in similar “patches”. Although there is always some attrition, we never have the problems with the “historic patch” that we have with the “modern patch”. The old timers, on the whole, seem to be more tolerant of the heat, the cold, standing water, grasshoppers, weeds and so forth than many (not all) of the modern guys.

spanish fandango
Spanish Fandango (Kleinsorge, 1951), from Cooley’s Gardens catalog for 1955
  • “Since they have survived over 30 years, are historic irises tougher than today’s introductions?”
  • “Should we be using older irises in hybridizing to regain vigor, increase, disease resistance, durability?”
  • “It seems like many of the newer varieties don’t last the first winter in my garden; I think I’ll stick with the older ones.”

These are just a sampling of questions or statements I have heard from folks regarding historic irises. Just think how many TBs alone have been introduced in the last 50 years. How many have stood the test of time?

Looking back through my collection of old catalogs, I chose a year at random. In 1951, for instance, the following irises were introduced by these well-known iris growers:




How many of these are still in commerce in 2001? We offer PHALANX. Some are listed as available in the HIPS database. I wonder how gardeners in the fifties felt about these “newer” varieties. Did they perform overall any better than the “newer” varieties of today?

“Since they have survived over 30 years, are historic irises tougher than today’s introductions?” The ones that have survived 30 plus years are tougher than all those that didn’t survive, just like the tougher ones of today will still be around 30 plus years from now. If you grow SWERTII (1612) or QUAKER LADY (1909) for one year you will understand how and why they are still around.

[ Pictured at right: Solid Gold – Quaker Lady – Swertii, © MU ]

“Should we be using older irises in hybridizing to regain vigor, increase, disease resistance, durability?” Those older irises that have stood the test of time have proven that they have desirable traits of vigor, increase, disease resistance and, above all, durability. Therefore, in my opinion, something certainly could be gained, at least along those lines, by including select ones in your breeding program of today. Arguably, the iris seems to, more often than not, retain these desirable traits while maintaining the desirable modern characteristics we are trying to develop. For instance, crossing back to SNOW FLURRY (a pretty decent looking historic white which happens to be an ancestor of most modern bearded irises) should impart some of the performance traits without substantially affecting “modern” characteristics. VIOLET HARMONY and ROCOCO are other potential “invigorators”.

“It seems like many of the newer varieties don’t last the first winter in my garden. I think I’ll stick with the older ones.” Were the irises of the past ALL tougher than ALL of those bred today? Probably not or they would ALL still be available. Clearly, in a comparison of 20 randomly chosen historic varieties with 20 randomly chosen varieties introduced in the last five years, the historics would, as a lot, perform better in the areas of vigor, disease resistance, heat or cold tolerance and durability. After all, that is how they got to be historic. They stood the test of time.

However, if we are selective in choosing newer varieties — considering hybridizer success, parentage, performance in other nearby gardens, recommendation by other irisarians or judges, local or regional symposia, adaptability and so forth – we should be more successful with all varieties. As 2001 draws to a close, which “modern” varieties do you think will be historic in 2031?


[Pictured above: Jesse’s Song, Beverly Sills, and Thornbird, ©MU.
This article is from Vol. 14 Issue 1, Spring 2001 issue of ROOTS.]