It was the perfect opportunity. With the AIS convention in western Pennsylvania, with the irises there virtually at peak bloom, why not tag on a trip to the Presby Memorial Gardens in nearby New Jersey? Established in the 1930s, this public garden once contained the most comprehensive collection of historic irises in North America, the collection building by yearly acquisitions from the garden’s inception.
The anticipated horde of HIPSters to make the Presby pilgrimage attenuated to a scant handful of the intrepidly curious. Two of the group had visited the garden in the past, and from as long ago as 1970 could attest that Presby suffered from typical “public garden syndrome”: the “personpower” – and all of it volunteer help – needed for maintaining the collection always fell short of the number needed to keep the entire collection in top shape. The irises, closely planted in blocks of varieties in wide, curving beds, would easily manage to intermingle in the years between dividing times: in bloom season, an ever-increasing “tapestry effect” evolved. Careful tagging of bloomstalks helped keep identities straight for digging, but in the absence of tags, who could sort out interlopers in summer? Mixed plantings and misplaced identities were a consequence.
Upon entering the garden at the end farthest from the house/headquarters, we came upon a thriving patch of Jean Cayeux – but labeled Marquita; credit due for correct hybridizer and year of introduction – but wrong irisl To prove that all was not completely lost, no more than fifteen feet distant was another fine patch of Jean Cayeux flying under the proper banner. In fact, the identification situation was quirky. In some beds, virtually all were correctly labelled (many of the 1930s varieties, for example). Other beds had a majority of correct identifications but duplications of a variety under both correct and incorrect names (as Jean Cayeux and Marquita). And of course, there were some “tapestry” manifestations – in a few cases where no tapestry elements represented the iris on a name tag!
One avowed goal of this visit was to see if the iris W. R. Dykes still grew at Presby. It, the first large and tall (tetraploid) yellow, was a sensation from the moment it first flowered in the mid-1920s, and hybridizers pounced upon it in the quest for more of the same. Its popularity waned, however, as its numerous first – and second – generation offspring bettered it in form, finish and color depth. It left its mark on such famous yellows as Golden Hind and Happy Days, but finer yellow progeny were just its secondary claim to fame. Its greater contribution was as a multiple ancestor of the original Dave Hall tangerine-bearded pink irises, making it a “grandaddy” of all current tangerine-descended irises. In a classic good news/bad news scenario, W. R. Dykes‘s last known place of residence in North America was the Presby Garden.
Approaching the long bed of 1920s irises, we were not encouraged. Bloom was scanty, and the irises looked as though they had been planted as ground cover. At the bed’s edge were the decades-old metal tags proclaiming a tantalizing array of rarities, few of which had mustered the energy to flower. Strolling down the grass path, the words “if only…” were foremost. But just at the point we were abandoning hope, a spot of bright yellow beckoned us down the path. Yes, there it was: a short stem, showing one open blossom, directly behind the old metal label that read “W. R. Dykes”. Rediscovering this antique treasure produced an adrenaline rush and sense of awe that no doubt recalled 1920s reactions. And the exhilaration was heightened by the best news of all; attached to the stem was a wooden tag bearing its name.