Book Reviews: Diamonds in the Dust Again – Part 4

Clarence Mahan, Va

iris for every garden by sydney b mitchellIn the article “Even More Diamonds in the Dust” which appeared in the Spring 1995 issue of ROOTS, I mentioned two excellent books by Sydney Mitchell; From a Sunset Garden and Your California Garden and Mine. When this artide appeared I received a letter from my dear friend Olive Rice-Waters bringing to my attention that I had neglected to mention Mitchell’s most noted work on irises, namely Iris for Every Garden (New York, 1949). Soon thereafter numerous other iris book lovers wrote to point out this same omission. This was a startling reminder to me that my “Diamond in the Dust” series of articles to date has, for the most part, neglected mention of the classic books on irises in favor of the lesser known works and books that contain iris material along with other horticultural subjects. I shall now try to rectify this matter.

Mitchell’s Iris for Every Garden often appears on the lists of booksellers who specialize in old gardening books, but its lack of rarity does not detract from its overall excellence. In addition to the first edition, a second revised edition came out in 1960. Although a small book, it contains a wealth of information on iris history and culture. It is dated to the extent that it recommends cultivars popular in the 1940’s and 1950’s, but that only makes it all the more valuable to those of us who are interested in historic irises.

The first classic work of iris literature is J. G. Baker’s Handbook of the Irideæ (London 1892). This is very rare, and I was very fortunate to have found and purchased Amos Perry’s copy, with his signature on the title page. This work is a comprehensive lexicon of the genera as it was at that time. Consequently, it was intended to be and is of more interest to botanists than to gardeners. Baker, who was Keeper of the Herbarium of the Royal Garden, Kew, inherited from Sir Joseph Hooker the task of completing a series of botanical handbooks, of which Handbook of the Irideæ was the last. (Reprinted 1972)

Freely drawing on and acknowledging Baker’s work and the work of Sir Michael Foster, R. Irwin Lynch, who was Curator of the University Botanic Gardens at Cambridge, wrote the second great classic work on irises, The Book of the Iris (London and New York, 1904). This work was reprinted in 1923. Both editions are becoming scarce. Notwithstanding that taxonomists, as taxonomists are prone to do, have mucked around with the genus quite a bit since the Lynch book was written, it remains an outstanding work of iris literature. The chapters on cultivation have a wealth of information, some of which is available no place else. One of the chapters, “The Cultivation of Oncocyclus Irises”, was contributed by Rev. Henry Ewbank, who after Sir Michael Foster, was the acknowledged authority on arils. The photographs reproduced in this work will be of much interest to anyone studying iris species or historic irises.

For years I searched for a copy of Les Iris dans les Jardins (Geneva and Paris, 1907) by H. Correvon and H. Masse. When I finally obtained a copy of this French book, I discovered it was a paper bound work that amounts to little more than a translation of Lynch’s book, albeit condensed. Except for the value it holds from an historical perspective, this is not a book to be coveting. (I realize such advice will be scoffed at by the avid collector of iris books, and, of course, if I did not already have a copy of this work I would pay no heed to the advice either. There is no helping the addicted!)

the genus iris by wm. r dykesWilliam Rickatson Dykes was a genius. If one could have only one iris book it surely must be the great masterpiece, The Genus Iris, which was reprinted by Dover in 1974. The reprint is quite good, with the forty seven colored drawings by F. H. Round rendered well. But if you must skimp and save, or go without eating for a few months, a copy of the original is a magnificent work of the printer’s craft. The drawings are very beautiful, and done with great accuracy. Copies rarely become available because they are sought by collectors of fine art books and great botanical books as well as those interested in irises. One bright side of acquiring a copy of The Genus Iris (Cambridge, 1913) is that it con- tinues to increase in value – it is truly an investment in fine art. I never cease to be amazed at the vast knowledge of irises possessed by W. R. Dykes. The fact that he was by education not a botanist but a scholar in classical studies has always fascinated me. Dykes took up the study of irises as an avocation, but soon became recognized as an authority on the botanical as well as the garden aspects of irises. The first book Dykes wrote about irises was Irises (London, 1909), a volume in the series “Present-Day Gardening.” A small volume, it focuses on the decorative uses of the iris as a garden plant. It is also rich in scientific information.

irises by wm. r dykesIrises has eight illustrations, and one in particular, namely Plate IV which depicts “Jacquesiana” incorrectly labeled “Jacquiniana,” will be of special interest to historic iris enthusiasts. This incorrect name was one of several which “Jacquesiana” acquired in the nursery trade in the days before the creation of the American Iris Society and its registration system. I have always found this particular misnaming to be particularly amusing because it undoubtedly came into being as a consequence of pedantry. The scholarly world easily ignores or forgets great horticulturists such as Henri Antoine Jacques, for whom the iris was named by Lémon. Assuming the nursery trade had incorrectly spelled the Latinized name of the great Austrian botanist Nicolaus Joseph Jacquin, someone learned in botany converted the name of this iris from “Jacquesiana” to “Jacquiniana.” And under this “corrected” name, this great iris became known to a generation of gardeners.

W. R. Dykes wrote a third book on irises, Handbook of Garden Irises (London, 1914). There is a reprint of this work put out by Theophrastus Publishers in 1976. This book provides a vast array of information on iris species and the finest garden irises available in the early 1920’s. The book confirms that no one before or since has had such a comprehensive knowledge of irises as Dykes. He not only studied irises from an academic standpoint, but also grew every species he could obtain. He knew irises from detailed study of books and dried specimens and from detailed observation in his own garden. Handbook of Garden Irises updates and augments information in The Genus Iris. It is a “diamond” well worth searching for on the dusty shelves of second-hand book stores.

One of my favorite iris books is the wonderful collection of the many articles Dykes wrote for various magazines and journals, compiled and edited by George Dillistone. This work, Dykes on Irises (Tunbridge Wells, 1930), can be located from time to time on the lists of British booksellers. It is filled with little known information on many types of irises, and is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in historic irises. For example, do you have the true “Queen of May?” Does it sometimes produce an abnormal number of parts? Dykes wrote in 1921 that “Queen of May is a constant offender in producing four-sided flowers…” Do you know who Mine, Fedtschenko was and what her contribution was to iris knowledge? Dykes cites her work on the irises of Turkestan published in the Journal Russe de Botanique. Are you aware of Dykes’s iris hunts in Croatia and Bosnia? The account of his “Dalmation iris hunt” is in Dykes on Irises, along with hundreds of other stories and observations, all dealing with irises.

An exceptionally valuable iris book for anyone undertaking research in historic cultivars is Les Iris Cultivés (Paris, 1923). This great work is a compilation of articles written by the leaders of the iris world who participated in the International Conference of Irises held in Paris in 1922. Although these articles are mosdy written in French, there are several in English. As a whole, this is an exceptional reference work. There are articles by Guillaumin, Krelage, Dykes, R. S. Sturtevant, Mottet, Yeld, Bliss, Hoog, Masse, to name just a few of the contributors.

Between pages 6 and 7 of Les Iris Cullivés is a page of pictures of the members of the Commission des Iris of the Société Nationale d’Horticulture de France; among those whose photographs appear on this page are Ferdinand Cayeux, J. L. de Vilmorin, W. R. Dykes, S. Mottet, John Wister, and L. Millet. When one sees the pictures of these distinguished gentlemen they become more than names in iris history – they are men who peer back at us from the past. Can one detect kindness in the eyes of the great Cayeux? A bit of irascibility in the eyes of the great Dykes?

It is a little known fact that the iris was the favorite flower of the great impressionist, Claude Monet. Monet not only loved irises, he also often painted them. One finds on page 9 of Les Iris Cultive’s that M. Monet was also one of the major contributors of financial support to the International Conference on Irises. Is it not paradoxical that Van Gogh would come to be associated with irises, while the world knows Monet for his great waterlily paintings?

There are four American iris works dating from the 1920’s that merit mention. The first of these is very rare, and is in fact not a book but the issues of the magazine The Flower Grower for the years 1920 and 1921. My set of these comprise two volumes bound in marbled boards, and was once in the Swarthmore College Library. My dear friend by correspondence, the late Elizabeth Woodburn, perhaps the leading authority on American horticultural literature, called me to tell me she had obtained these volumes, and wondered if I would wish to purchase them. I paid the vast sum of $35.00. What a find!

flower grower magazineTo understand the importance of The Flower Grower during 1920 and 1921, only two facts need to be known. First, it is in the January 1920 issue that Grace Sturtevant’s letter appears announcing a meeting will be held at the New York Botanical Garden on January 29,1920 for the purpose of organizing an iris society. This was of course the meeting that organized the American Iris Society. The second fact is that the newly formed American Iris Society used The Flower Grower to publish its minutes and articles before it had its own Bulletin. There are also many other articles and letters on irises that appear in the 1920 and 1921 issues of this magazine. Sometimes, although indeed not often, individual issues or limited runs of The Flower Grower come onto the horticultural used book and magazine market. If you see one for sale, buy it.

The second great American iris work of the 1920’s is the New York Botanical Garden’s Addisonia, Volume 9, Number 4 (Dec, 1924); Volume 12, Number 1 (Mar. 1927); and Volume 14, Number 1 (Mar. 1929). These volumes can sometimes be found individually, and I had collected several when I found all three bound together from the library of F. Cleveland Morgan. These issues of Addisonia contain the descriptions of American iris species, or in some cases what were thought to be species, by J. K. Small. Each iris described has a colored drawing by Mary E. Eaton.

Would you like to know what that hauntingly beautiful iris named by Small, Iris albispiritus looks like? Plate 450 in Vol. 12, Nr. 1 depicts it with its uniquely crisped and finely toothed sepal blades, finely toothed Style branches, and six-ribbed pods. This iris was originally found in the vicinity of Fort Myers, Florida. Since reading the description and seeing the drawing of it in Addisonia, I have never been able to believe that Small was wrong in his view that this iris merits species rank – even though it has been rather cavalierly dismissed by other botanists. I suspect that someday Small will be proved correct. Needless to say, I recommend anyone finding one of these volumes of Addisonia purchase it at once – the price will be reasonable.

tall bearded iris by walter stagerThe first published book on irises written by an American is not as difficult to find as one might expect. This book is Walter Stager’s Tall Bearded Iris (Sterling, Ill., 1922). This book is filled with poems about irises, excerpts from literature mentioning irises, and a comprehensive survey of culture, propagation, and tall bearded iris cultivars popular in the first two decades of the 20th century. There are many pictures in this book, including pictures of cultivars popular in Stager’s day. They are, of course, in black and white.

Want to know how borers were controlled before the banned DDT® or the currently popular Cygon® 2-E came onto the market? Here is some advice from Stager: “Many years ago a single root of Mme, Chereau had been planted in the lawn at Stager Place and left to grow as it might, and it became a matted clump five or six feet in diameter. after a time many of the rhizomes reached the surface, and from time to ttme those in the inner portions of the clump became mere shells which gradually dried up and disappeared, and their places became occupied by new growths following the same course, Some grass grew scatteringly among the rhizomes…. Early in 1919, before growth commenced, a little straw was scattered over the clump and set on fire. The flame swept over the clump in a flash and the straw, leaves and grass were entirely consumed, some of the shells were scorched and slightly burned, but the live rhizomes appeared to have suffered no injury whatever. The spring growth began at the usual time and the foliage was as abundant and vigorous, and the flower stems as numerous, large and floriferous as ever before. The experiment was repeated March 3, 1920, and again January 28,1921, and each time with like result.”

the iris by john c wisterThe last American work of iris literature I will mention, and I believe it was the second iris book published in this country, is John Wister’s The Iris (New York, 1927), This small volume was issued as part of a series of gardening books called the “Farm & Garden Library.” For the student of iris history this is a gem of a book. The work of all the great breeders in the U.S. and Europe is described, and many, many cultivars are commented on in this book. There are several appendices including one for recommended varieties and the infamous “Black List” adopted by AIS in 1925. This book is often found, dusty and forgotten, in stores specializing in old books.

When I began this article I had intended to cover all the classic works of iris literature – thankfully there are so many that, except for the Mitchell book, I have not been able to get beyond the 1920’s, Unless ROOTS readers demand a stop to it, there is thus a wealth of diamonds to be discussed in the future. Happy hunting!

~ Reprinted from ROOTS, Vol 9, Issue 1, Spring 1997.