Reprint: What America Has Done for the Iris

by John C. Wister (President American Iris Society)

iris bouquet

Editor’s note: – There is very much of interest in the history and personal association of the pioneers with the earliest cultivation of various plants and flowers that have become really so popular as to have outstepped the confines of the garden and become almost cosmopolitan in their appeal and acquaintance with the world at large. Unfortunately, much of this early history has been lost because in the beginning the ultimate wide-spreading interest could not be foreseen. The earliest and greatest amount of plant improvement naturally was accomplished by European gardeners, and the introduction of their products into the gardens of America formed the basis of further developments in conformity with the requirements and the conditions of this country. The Garden Magazine has attempted to put in concise form available information concerning the early history of popular garden plants in this country and the people who aided this development. This article dealing with the Iris is a fitting continuation of previous articles of like character devoted to the Rose and to the Peony which, it is hoped, will in due time be followed by the story of the Dahlia and others of similar general appeal.
SUDDENLY in the spring of 1920 the world awoke to the fact that the Iris was the coming American garden flower. Amateurs everywhere were inquiring about Iris varieties, where to buy them, how to plant them; communities were planting public Iris gardens; and Iris shows were being held.

This interest in the Iris, then for the first time markedly universal, seems to indicate that in American gardens the fourth period of Iris development has begun. Irises have been grown here more than a century; and, looking back upon it, we can easily divide that century into three periods: (1) from 1820 to 1875; (2) from 1875 to 1900; (3) from 1900 to 1920.

At the beginning of the first period there were already in America a dozen or twenty cultivated forms of Bearded Iris such as pumila, Chamaeiris, lutescens, florentina, germanica, pallida, variegata, and sambucina. These were apparently offered for the first time in America by that pioneer nurseryman, William Prince of Flushing, Long Island. It was not until some time in the ‘”fifties” that the first named varieties of Bearded Iris were offered; and among them were Aurea, Honorabile, Mme. Chereau, and Jacquesiana, which are still much grown to-day, and which, in fact, are fully as good as many of the more advertised later productions. As many as a hundred varieties were offered by representative nurseries during the ‘”sixties;” but after 1875 the interest in these named varieties slackened just as it did in Europe after the Franco-Prussian War.

The second period, 1875 to 1900, was noteworthy for the interest in species of Iris other than the Bearded (or so-called germanica) Group. For the first time some of our native Iris began to be appreciated; of these there were more than a dozen growing in more than twenty-five states, ranging from Maine to California. The writings of J. G. Gerard in Garden and Forest were among the first to call attention to these beautiful species. To-day only three of them, versicolor, cristata, and fulva, seem to be grown to any extent by gardeners in the eastern part of the United States. It was during this period that Mr. Carl Purdy of Ukiah, California, discovered and brought into cultivation many of the exquisitely lovely Californian species which are now well known in Europe, but have not been successfully cultivated as yet in the colder regions of the United States.

The Japanese Iris also first reached the United States during these years. It has been stated that Thomas Hogg was its first importer, and his collection given to Doctor Thurber, then Editor of The American Horticulturist – was introduced into the trade shortly after 1869, the approximate date of importation. Others give the credit not to Hogg, but to Hallock & Thorpe of Queens, L. I. But whichever came first, both were early and widely disseminated collections, for the beauties of this new flower speedily captured the gardeners. The terrible confusion still existing in the nomenclature of this species originated at that early date through the re-naming and the translating of Japanese names. The large and varied collection of Prof. R. T. Jackson of Cambridge, Mass., was also made between 1875 and 1900, and he is credited with raising what is believed to be the first American seedling in the Bearded group, the variety Pallisy (very rich in coloring, but too small to remain important), which received a Certificate of Merit from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1885.

With the new century came a tremendous awakening of interest in hardy plants, and among them the Iris soon received its share of attention. About the time of the founding of The Garden Magazine in 1904, a nursery was started at Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, by a man of little previous experience in gardening, but whose love for it had led him to give up his business to become a nurseryman. This little nursery has done much to stimulate general knowledge of Peonies, Phlox, Lilacs, and other plants-but especially Iris. For whatever development the Iris has reached in America to-day is due more to the founder of this nursery, Mr. Bertrand H. Farr, than to any other man or group of men.

bertrand h. farr
Originator of Quaker Lady, Montezuma, Juniata and other justly famous varieties; a notable history-maker for the Iris in America.

Mr. Farr imported large numbers of named varieties of Iris from Barr and from Wallace of England, which, when distributed, aroused enthusiasm everywhere. Among them, of course were a goodly number of the old Lemon varieties, already in this country in the ‘”fifties” and ‘”sixties” as I have said; but as he had not previously imported from Holland or from general European nurseries, Mr. Farr’s collection did not contain the duplications so apparent in other nurseries. From this initial collection were raised his first seedlings which, even more than the imported plants, brought immediate fame to him; for among the very first of them were such gems as Quaker Lady, Montezuma, and Juniata, varieties far in advance of any of the o\der European sorts. It has been suggested that some of Mr. Farr’s seedlings are not as fine as some of the later European varieties. While these criticisms may in some instances be just, they are equally just of any other breeder, and I would much prefer to judge a breeder by his best things than by his worst. I wish to point out here, however, that most of his things were raised before we knew of the modern Iris development in Europe; that they were distinct advances on the older sorts; and that they, together with his importations, have brought the Iris to its present height of popularity. His position in Iris history must in consequence ever be secure.

A little later Farr imported from Goos & Koenemann in Germany and was one of the first to present the wonderful Loreley, Rhein Nixe, Iris King, Gajus, Mithras, and the intermediate Irises to the American public. They in their turn again increased the interest of gardeners in the Iris. Following this he became one of the early importers of Vilmorin’s Oriflamme, Eldorado, Alcazar, and Archeveque; so that through the years he has kept pace with the latest developments in Europe, as well as putting out seedlings of his own from time to time. His early seedlings were followed by others such as Mary Garden, Pocahontas, and – last year – Seminole, which received one of the first Honorable Mentions of the Iris Society.

Mr. Farr, however, soon had many competitors. Nurseries specializing in Iris sprang up all over the land, some of them buying their stock from him and copying his catalogue almost word for word; others importing direct from Europe and very often, under new and strange names, the identical varieties offered by Prince sixty years ago. The Rainbow Iris Gardens of St. Paul were the first among them to offer a number of the Foster and Yeld varieties in America; while Mrs. Dean of Moneta, Cal., was the first to import the new Millet and Denis seedlings. In fact many of our large nurseries now offer complete collections, where before they offered but three or four varieties. As a raiser of seedlings also he was not long alone. At Wellesley Farms, Massachusetts, Miss Grace Sturtevant has a beautiful, small, roadside garden sloping gently down to a pond; in the spring time so charming a picture is made by the Iris that all passers-by pause to admire. A set of seedlings exhibited by Miss Sturtevant in 1914 before the Massachusetts Horticultural Society brought her a number of certificates and awards of merit. In her breeding she has sometimes used cypriana and other kinds springing from Asiatic origin, which have given size and height, but she has been fortunate in securing these attributes without the loss of vigor which has characterized some of the seedlings of Foster, Vilmorin, and Denis in Europe. Of her many fine varieties it is difficult to choose the best; my own personal favorites are Afterglow, B. Y. Morrison, Queen Caterina, and Shekinah.

Fryer, Syurtevant, Dean
Garden at Wellesley, iris with pond

Mr. B. Y. Morrison has made the little suburb outside of Washington, where he lives, a veritable Iris paradise. Neighbor after neighbor has been inspired to plant Iris, and a few of them have even combined with him to plant Iris instead of grass in the strip between the sidewalk and the curb for a distance of several hundred feet on one of the streets. Yearly Iris Shows have been held under the auspices of the Town Improvement Society, at which he has offered plants of the newer varieties as prizes. It is a striking illustration of what one energetic man can do in a community. Mr. Morrison’s writings have made him well known in garden circles, but few of his many friends know of the work in breeding which, inspired by the success of Miss Sturtevant, he has been carrying on. He has only a few varieties, but these are the very finest, and breeding among them has been going on for several years.

morrison garden, kent garden

In the last three years the American who has sent the most varieties into the trade is W. E. Fryer of Mantorville, Minnesota. Mr. Fryer tested more than five hundred named varieties in his severe climate, and finding many of them below his expectations, he set about raising seedlings, of which he has named forty or fifty. One of his newest varieties, “Magnificent,” secured an Honorable Mention at the Minneapolis Iris Show last year.Bobbink & Atkins of Rutherford, N. J.,also have raised a number of seedlings, notably one variety-Wanaque.

Mr. E. B. Williamson, a banker of Bluffton, Indiana, who divides his spare time between collecting dragon flies and hybridizing Iris, has introduced only a few varieties, but of such high quality as to make him immediately famous. His garden is smaller than Miss Sturtevant’s or Mr. Morrison’s; in fact it is nothing but a small town back yard, probably not fifty feet square, but there is not a blade of grass or a plant of any kind except Iris, grown in straight rows in raised beds with wooden sides, and narrow paths between. Finding this garden not big enough, his Iris began to overflow into the back yards of neighbors; so that now all over Bluffton behind or between houses one comes upon Iris planted and cared for by him.

ward garden

Mr. Williamson has grown many thousands of seedlings. Some years ago he was particularly struck with the fine blooms of one of the Asiatic species in his garden and set about using it for breeding, crossing with it nearly every other variety there, and making more than 500 distinct crosses in two different years. Of them all only one produced a pod of seed, and from this seed grew the Iris, Lent A. Williamson, introduced in 1918 and springing, as it bloomed in the gardens of other Iris enthusiasts, into sudden fame. Unlike most plants which start at a high price and become cheaper every year, this variety has steadily risen in value until to-day it is hard to get a plant of it even at four or five times the original figure. It has often been compared to Alcazar and although not exactly the same color, it is close enough to entirely replace it, being as it is such a strong, vigorous grower and free bloomer. The plant can be readily distinguished by its large rhizomes; and it is interesting to note that in this characteristic, and in texture and substance of flower, it resembles Dominion and Ambassadeur.

williamson / purdy

Another of Mr. Williamson’s seedlings is Dorothea K. Williamson, a hybrid of fulva and foliosa of the same type as Mr. Dykes’s fulvala. We hope that this is only a forerunner of others of the same race. Cherokee Maid and Maude Tribolet are hybrids between susiana and some of his tall Bearded varieties. They are of beautiful, rich coloring with the veining of susiana; and so far have proved more vigorous than the similar hybrids of Sir Michael Foster.The only other American breeder who has sent out any quantity of seedlings to commerce is Mrs. Francis Cleveland, of Eatontown, N. J. M rs. Cleveland knows Iris well and we hope for much from her seedlings.

ward garden

Few of the other breeders of whom I wish to speak have sent varieties into commerce. Mrs. C. S. McKinney of Madison, N. J., has one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful Iris garden I have ever visited. It is exceedingly simple – pallida dalmatica predominates, interspersed with varieties such as Mme. Chereau, Mrs. H. Darwin, and Aurea. Among Mrs. McKinney’s many fine seedlings are Piquante, Simplicity, and Her Rival.Mr. D. M. Andrews of Boulder, Colorado, has been breeding Iris for some years along Mendelian lines and he insists that he will not introduce anything until he gets to the third generation; in the meantime it is hard to persuade him to say much about his work. It is known, however, that he has a yellow which is splendidly clear in a climate where both Aurea and Mrs. Neubronner develop streaks.

To get clear yellow selfs is difficult, but Mr. J. N. Shull of Chevy Chase, Md., is this year introducing Virginia Moore, a variety which stands taller than Aurea, Mrs. Neubronner, or Sherwin Wright; and while on young plants it may show coarse veining, in established clumps the effect is a pure self; and by reason of its height, it should become a very valuable variety. It is interesting to note that this is a second generation hybrid from Honorabile and Her Majesty, certainly not varieties which to this casual observer would offer much promise of giving a tall yellow.

Among white varieties the clearest in color is White Knight raised by Prof. A. B. Saunders of Clinton, “N.Y., also well known as Secretary of the American Peony Society. It is a disappointment that Prof. Saunders has not followed this successful Iris with others.

Those who are following closely the work of Iris breeders are coming to believe that our greatest Iris seedlings will be bred by Mr. William Mohr of Mt. Eden, Cal.; this belief being based largely on the fact that in his climate he can use freely Mesopotamia and other Asiatic types, as well as Iris oncocyclus as parents. From the first of these he has obtained wonderful height and size of bloom, and a greater range of color than is seen in any of the Denis hybrids which have reached California. From an Eastern point of view, however, it is feared that his plants may lack vigor in severe climates, and we may find his early crosses, which were made largely with Juniata as one of the parents, of greater value.

We have a number of breeders in the East of whom practically nothing has been heard. Mrs. M. W. Jacobs of Harrisburg displayed a fine collection of seedlings at the Iris Show at Philadelphia last year, one of which, Rachel Fox, attracted much attention for its beautiful color, even though it was not large. At the same show there were a number of seedlings grown by my friend, Frank M. Thomas, who was killed in Argonne; and I understand one of them has recently been given his name. It will, I hope, prove worthy of its raiser.

Mr. Frank Kohler of Camden, N. J. , Had a number of fine seedlings in the same exhibition, among them a particularly fragrant pallida. As he served his apprenticeship with Goos & Koenemann at the time they were raising their splendid seedlings, we may look to him to give us good things in the future.

It is not necessary, however, to have long experience or a large collection to achieve success, as has been shown by Mr. Frank H. Presby, Treasurer of the American Iris Society, who raised a few seedlings, one of which is a beautiful flower standing more than four feet in height/.

Aside from the work of breeders, we have in America many beautiful Iris gardens, featuring not only popular Bearded varieties, but also Japanese and other Beardless sorts. There is remarkable enthusiasm at present for public Iris gardens, as is exemplified in the Test Gardens of the American iris Society at the Botanical Gardens of New York, of Brooklyn, and at Cornell University. Exhibition gardens are also being planned for, and in some cases are already started, at St. Thomas, Ontario; Columbus, O.; Madison, Wis.; Nashville, Tenn.; St, Louis, Mo.; and many other places; showing the unusual interest in this wonderful flower at the present time, also proved by the widespread enthusiasm over Iris exhibitions in nearly all sections of the country.

The large number of persons interested in Iris breeding in Europe and America to-day is certainly a healthy sign and is to be greatly encouraged, because of the greater number of seedlings grown, the greater the chance of advancement. But there is also danger that we may in a few years be flooded with a host of mediocre seedlings named and introduced in good faith as being worthy of cultivation. Nothing will discourage the average gardener more than buying new varieties and finding them unworthy; and the American iris Society hopes that gardeners everywhere will stand firmly behind it in its attempt to prevent the introduction of anything which is not distinctly superior to varieties already in existence.

irises with birdbath

~ Reprinted from The Garden Magazine, June 1921.