Article: The Story of Presby

by Laetitia Munro, NJ

Montclair NJ was one of the first suburban ‘bedroom communities’ of NYC, just 13 miles away. By the early 20th century it had become a hub of arts, culture, and exemplary architecture. When some citizens wanted the town to buy the last large piece of vacant land, the edict from the Mayor was: ‘bring us 5,000 signatures of residents and then we will buy’. And Mrs. Barbara Walther, who lived next door to the land, collected 5,000 signatures. The new park was christened Mountainside Park.

frank h presbyFrank Presby was a highly regarded and beloved member of the Montclair community. Not only was Mr. Presby a successful businessman, and a community leader, but he was also an avid amateur gardener who was one of the first to advocate for the formation of the American Iris Society. His sudden death from a bout of ‘acute indigestion’ in 1924 was a shocking event for the whole town. At the time of his death, he was the Treasurer of the newly formed AIS. From all accounts Mr. Presby was greatly admired by all, and it seemed like a natural expression of community affection to name an iris garden in his memory on that newly acquired piece of parkland.

And so Presby Iris Gardens began as a small memorial to honor a beloved citizen who too soon passed from this earth. In 1927 the mayor asked the community: ‘come bring your iris’ to plant at the new memorial garden. And that was exactly how the first iris of Presby arrived: brought in boxes like family treasures from local gardens, some donated by the Presby family, and even some that he hybridized or others that were named to honor his family. The three Presby irises, named for Harriet, Mildred, and Betty were planted at the corners of the triangular plot, which was designated for the iris. Barbara Walther, who was instrumental in getting the parklands purchased, reluctantly agreed to head the garden. Though Barbara had studied botany before the turn of the century at the University of Chicago she knew nothing of irises. But she accepted the challenge, and was personally responsible for turning Presby into the world renowned Iris gardens it is today. Mrs. Walther remained active in the garden well into her ninties, and died in 1977 at the age of 96. By 1982 Presby gained recognition as a National Historic Landmark.

irises at presby - 1930s
Irises at Presby circa 1930’s
Vintage postcard image.

In 1975 the Walther house, a 140 year old Victorian in disrepair, was purchased by the Citizens Committee to complement the gardens. Today it is the headquarters of the Citizens Committee, and houses the curator, the iris library, and the offices of Presby Memorial. In addition, a lovely Victorian garden surrounds it, thickly planted with ferns, peonies, lilies and other plants, many with named markers. When one walks through its gates, it is like walking back into another century.

Today, the iris garden has expanded beyond the small triangular area, so that there are over 30 beds of bearded iris, with more than 2000 varieties, which wind gracefully up the grassy hill towards the rugged cliffs and woodlands in the back of Mountainside Park. A streambed has been carefully constructed along the length of Presby, which is normally dry, but collects excess rainwater, which runs down the hills. Along its banks are planted beds of Siberian Iris and Japanese Iris. Within it are many Louisiana Iris as well. Thanks to the efforts of the last Garden Superintendent David Nial several new beds of Siberian and Japanese Iris (some historics, some not) have been planted in 2003-4. The hope is that at least 100 Japanese Iris can live there, making it one of the largest displays of Japanese iris on the East Coast. It seems most iris, with the exception of the arilbreds, are thriving there, with a few species iris as well.

The gardens are maintained by a small staff of gardeners and weeders, but is supplemented by volunteers from the community who do bedbooking as well as other tasks. Of the iris themselves, they range from the historic to the modern. Most of the iris planted there have traditionally been from donations. Many of our leading hybridizers, such as Schreiners, Cooleys , Superstition, and others are in the ‘donor program’, whereby they send rhizomes of their latest varieties to be put on display.
Of the original iris we know that MILDRED PRESBY is still alive and well, growing at the garden. Others simply bear names like ‘Mrs. Lyder’s Red’ or ‘Mrs. Thiebronner’, which are older donated iris whose names are lost to history. John Wister, friend of Mr. Presby, also contributed some of his European collected specimens back in the 20’s, and these would include I. Florentina amongst others.

Today Presby has a substantial collection of old and new iris. Another rare and gorgeous iris, named after the grand dame of Presby, BARBARA WALTHER is a personal favorite. Neither well known or well distributed, it is a tall pure white with cream-white beard. It is exceptionally well formed and extremely vigorous. It is a pleasure to behold, and stands out amongst its more gaily colored bedmates. A few years ago, perhaps the last W.R. DYKES iris was discovered growing at Presby. Today, thanks to Superstition Iris Gardens, this iris is enjoying something of a comeback and is a popular addition to historic iris gardens everywhere.

irises at presby - 1950s
Irises at Presby circa 1950’s
Vintage postcard image.

The garden is open to the public free of charge all during the year. During bloom season, it draws visitors from all over the world, and thousands enjoy the display. If you are in the NY area around the middle of May to the first week in June, it is well worth a trip. One can also purchase plants, rhizomes and other iris items at the shoppe. Presby also holds various events, such as garden talks, art and music events at other times of the year. Since the Japanese Iris bloom in Late June into July, it is well worth a separate trip just to see this impressive display.

The staff at Presby is always thinking up new ways to enhance the gardens’ appeal. One project is the addition of beds of rare lavender, which is being undertaken by some individuals. Another is the renovation of the remontant beds. Traditionally it has been difficult for the rebloomers to rebloom in NJ, but it is hoped that improved cultivation methods as well as planting the correct kinds of remontants will yield a Fall display some day in the not too distant future. As for the historic beds, there has been renewed interest in replacing the historics that have died, enhancing the nutrition of the older beds, such as with alfalfa pellets, and identifying many of the obscure varieties. While Presby is an old garden (celebrating its 75th anniversary a couple of years ago) it is a vital and dynamic place with plans to ever improve what I think is the greatest public display of iris in the country.

Source materiel for some information:
‘Iris Goddess of the Rainbow’, by Inez Bull
AIS bulletin December 1924.
Please see gallery listings for photo credits.