Book Reviews: Diamonds in the Dust Once More – Part 5

by Clarence Mahan, VAIn the last article in this series (ROOTS, Spring 1996), I began a suvey and description of the major works in iris literature which had not been covered in earlier articles. It was necessary to limit coverage in that article to works published before 1930, to keep the article from becoming too lengthy. In this article I will cover books on irises published during the 1930s. First, however, the omission of several earlier works needs to be rectified.

The name of John Bellenden Ker-Gawler may not be familiar to some readers, but those trained in botany or those who have studied iris species will, I am certain, recognize it. One of the great botanists of the early 19th century, Ker-Gawler was one of the leading authorities, if not the leading authority, on the genus Iris during his lifetime. If you look up I. fulva or I. ruthenica in The Genus Iris or in Brian Mathew’s The Iris, you will discover that Ker-Gawler was the first botanist to name and accurately describe these species.

Ker-Gawler’s great work on irises is Iridearum Genera (Brussels, 1827). This work lists all iris species known in 1827, and provides synonyms and comprehensive references. I am fortunate to know the provenance of my copy which came from the library at Schloss Dyck in Germany, having been originally in the collection of Prince Salm-Reifferscheid-Dyck. I mention this because those who are new to book collecting need to recognize that the rarer works will be more costly if they have an authenticated provenance.

Another 19th century work is Bulbs and Bulb Culture, Volume II (London, 1882) by David Taylor Fish. I bought this small book thinking that it might include bulbous irises and found it contained material on both rhizomous and bulbous irises. In looking for iris books from the 19th century, do not overlook books whose subject is bulbous plants. Though you might not be interested in bulbous irises, which would be a shame in my opinion, the older gardening books on bulbous plants not infrequently included rhizomous irises. Even with some glaring errors and some rather quaint propagation instructions, Bulbs and Bulb Culture is of historic value.

Fish was head gardener to estates in Suffolk, and also served as the editor of the horticultural section of the Agricultural Economist. He was widely recognized as an authority on many horticultural subjects. There are some lovely drawings in his book, although the name of the artist is not stated. The book has some interesting and sometimes quite surprising information about iris growing in Great Britain in the 1880s.

It is, for example, surprising to discover in Fish’s book that Japanese irises had already by 1881 attained considerable popularity in England. Fish believed that, with the exception of I. susiana, the Japanese iris was the most beautiful type of iris. The book lists 32 Japanese iris cultivars available from nurseries of that day. Unfortunately, I do not believe a single cultivar listed in this boo has been preserved, unless it is under a different name. One can discover which European nurseries were introducing Japanese irises to the European market, however, by noting some of the cultivar names, e.g. Krelagii, Doctor Hogg, Mathilde Von Siebold, Mrs. Barr, and Peter Rudolph Barr.

Fish lists and briefly describes 51 bearded iris cultivars, a valuable historical record of the irises grown in England in the 1880s. A number of these cultivars are irises bred by L&eacte;mon, such as Rebecca, Gloriette, Phidias, and Fenelon. I found it curious that Fish calls Iris pallida the “pale Turkey iris,” until I remembered that the Ottoman Empire of the Turks included the regions of the former Yugoslavia where I. pallida is endemic. When I looked in the 1939 Check List, I found that it even gives “Pale Turkey Iris” as a synonym for I. pallida. Fish’s descriptions of the various cultivars are, for the most part, consistent with descriptions in other source works.

Fish’s list does not include Honorabile, but it does have Sans Souci, described as having “orange” standards and “crimson, reticulated plum and white” falls. We might question the colors “orange” and “crimson,” but considering the colors of irises available when Fish was writing, his use of terms is understandable. Fish undoubtedly saw deep yellow as “orange” and red-violet as “crimson,” just as we call some tall bearded irises “red” today.

I found Fish’s description of Sans Souci interesting because it matches Mottet’s description in Les lris Cultivés. As I wrote in an earlier article in ROOTS, Mottet distinguished between Honorabile and Sans Souci, by their falls. He stated that Sans Souci has distinct veining on the falls but that Honorabile has “veines confluences” indicating a solid color. Mottet was familiar with both irises because he was employed by the Vilmorins, who grew both of these cultivars.

Three works from the 1920s, published in booklet form, which I have not mentioned before, are the Cornell Extension Bulletin 112, Bearded Irises (Ithaca, 1925); A Study of Pogoniris Varieties, Memoir 100 (Ithaca, 1916); and U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers’ Bulletin No. 1406, Garden Irises (Washington, D.C., 1926). These three items are classic iris reference works, and each in its way outstanding.

cornell extension bulletin 112Bulletin 112 and Memoir 100, both written by Austin W. W. Sand, are outstanding sources for detailed information on distinguishing characteristics of many older historic cultivars. An excellent example is Sand’s descriptions of Odoratissima), “Pallida Dalmatica” and Princess Beatrice in Bulletin 112. Assuming Sands was growing the correct cultivars (and this is always a major assumption), he clearly distinguishes Princess Beatrice from the other two cultivars. He states that Princess Beatrice has flowers that are well spaced on the stalk, but that the other two have large flowers that are dense and compact, crowded toward the top of the stalk. He points out that Odoratissima is “more violet” than Princess Beatrice. He describes the color of “Pallida Dalmatica” as “very intense Bradley’s violet” whereas Odoratissima’s standards are described as “lavender-violet” and its falls are described as “pleroma violet, lighter on outer haft but not noticeably so from a distance.” Sands also gives the AIS ratings for the irises he describes, which in this instance are: Odoratissima (78), “Pallida Dalmatica” (88) and Princess Beatrice (95).

In addition to descriptions of specific cultivars, Sand’s works include a wealth of other information on iris history, culture, and botany. In this respect, Memoir 100 is the superior of the two works. However, for cultivar identification, Bulletin 112 is clearly more valuable because Memoir 100 has information on fewer cultivars and ends with irises whose names begin with the letter “F”. Both works have photographs of various cultivars, but Memoir 100 has more and better pictures.

farmers bulletin 1406An abridged version of Bulletin 112 was published as Cornell Extension Bulletin 324. Mike Lowe recently pointed out to me that although Bulletin 324 is a poor, bowdlerized version of Bulletin 112, it does have better photographs. Bulletin 324 mentions another iris publication called “Bulletin 212”. This is apparently a typographical error, and the citation should have been to Bulletin 112. If you find a “Bulletin 212,” please send it to me at once!

Farmers’ Bulletin No. 1406 is an excellent, comprehensive survey of the different types of irises. It also has good explanations of the garden and landscape uses of irises, propagation, hybridization, iris shows, and diseases and insect pests.

Turning now to iris literature published after 1930, the lovely book by Marion Shull, Rainbow Fragments (NY, 1931) deserves the adjective “classic.” This book can often be found in old book stores and on the lists of booksellers specializing in old horticultural books. Anyone who is interested in historic irises should not pass up the chance to get it. The color prints of Shull’s iris paintings are very attractive. Unfortunately, one sometimes finds copies of this work which have been massacred by having the color prints removed; so if you find a copy make sure it has eight pages of color illustrations before the title page.

Mildred Presby as shown in Rainbow Fragments

Rainbow Fragments is, however, valuable for many features besides the illustrations. It describes in detail many of the best irises grown in the first part of the 20th century. Shull was a well-educated man who made his living as a botanical artist. He understood the genetics of iris breeding. (His brother George Shull was the “inventor” of hybrid corn which transformed American agriculture.) His ‘artist’s eye’ enabled him to see distinguishing characteristics of iris cultivars that others frequently did not see. He was candid in his assessments.

Rainbow Fragments is a very useful reference to aid the historic iris collector in correctly identifying old cultivars. For example, there is, between pages 22 and 23, a black and white photograph of a magnificent planting of Dalmatica, also known as “Pallida Dalmatica .”This is an historical record of the cultivar grown under that name in the early part of the 20th century. The falls clearly have a nice flare, distinguishing Dalmatica from any known forms of the species I. pallida collected in the wild. Dykes had previously asserted that “Pallida Dalmatica” grown in European gardens was a “garden hybrid.” Could an iris as fine as Dalmatica have appeared in European or American gardens until the latter part of the 19* century? I seriously doubt it. Who has the real Dalmatica? Are you sure?

Brooklyn Botanic Garden Contributions No. 60, The Irises of Japan, was published in 1931. This booklet reprints an article by George M. Reed that originally appeared in AIS Bulletin No. 40 (July, 1931). It is a splendid monograph with quite a few photographs taken of irises and iris gardens in Japan, Many people wrongly believe that some garden cultivars of the Japanese iris are “ancient” in comparison with bearded irises. The breeding of Japanese irises in Japan began in the same period that Lémon began his work with bearded irises in France, i.e. the early 19th century. Unlike some other writers on this subject, Reed “got it right.” This is not surprising because Reed was the leading authority on Japanese irises in the early days of the American Iris Society.

Earl Wooddell Sheets, like his friend and fellow iris breeder Marion Shull, worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and lived in Washington, D.C. He put out an iris catalogue from 1928 to 1935. But Sheet’s catalogue is really a little book in soft cover. My copy has a copyright date of 1932, and is called New, Rare and Good Old Irises, An Iris Lover’s Guide and Descriptive Catalogue. Robert Sturtevant, writing in the AIS Bulletin, praised Sheet’s comprehensive list of cultivars and the detailed and accurate descriptions.

Sheets “little book” lists and describes several hundred tall bearded irises. In his descriptions, Sheets emphasized the good points of each cultivar, but was not reluctant to point out weakness. For example, about Harriet Presby he wrote: “Petunia violet in two tones producing a pink effect. Somewhat like Aphrodite in color but without markings of any kind. A very tall, poorly-branched variety of good form. Massena is superior in size and habits of growth but not in color.” When was the last time you read in a modern catalogue that an iris was “poorly branched?”

What makes the Sheets “book-catalogue” even more desirable for the historic iris collector’s library is that it lists and describes many dwarfs, Siberians, Japanese, Dutch, Spanish, and species irises and even a few arils and arilbreds. Altogether, this is an excellent reference book. Perhaps HIPS will reproduce it for sale in the future.

A small soft-bound book written in French, Plantes Bulbeuses (Brussels, 1936) is the work of Adolphe Buyssens, Professeur Honoraire at the Government School of Horticulture in Vilvorde, Belgium. The Preface to the book was written by the author’s brother Jules Buyssens, identified as Archiecte de Jardins. I was delighted to discover that my copy has a hand written and signed dedication by the author: “A mon cher frere Jules, hommage et reconnaissance.” Irises comprise only a small section of the book. In addition to a brief explanation of the different types of irises, color descriptions are provided for a few old cultivars such as Celeste, Sir Walter Scott and Louis Van Houtte. Cultivars of dwarf, Japanese, Dutch, English and Spanish irises are also listed with terse color descriptions. This work is perhaps more of a curiosity than a useful reference work, but it has charm. The cover has a lovely color picture of a floral planting at the Exposition de Bruxelles of 1935. But the flowers in the picture are, alas, tulips.

Also from the 1930s is Iris Culture for Amateurs (London, 1937) by R.E.S. Spender and L. F. Pesel. R.E.S. Spender served as the editor of British Iris Society publications for a number of years. Louisa F. Pesel was Mistress of Embroideries at Winchester Cathedral (she called it her “rather charming title”), a noted authority on the use of color in the garden, and one of the very first people to promote the type of irises which we now class as miniature tall bearded irises. She was so associated with these “table irises” that for many years they were called “Pesels” in Great Britain.

iris culture for amateursIris Culture for Amateurs is a hard-cover handbook on irises whose message is aimed at the general garden public. It contains much information on all types of irises. It is particularly strong on landscaping uses of irises and advice on obtaining the best use of colors and color combinations. A quite informative chapter deals with irises in rock gardens. It is a small book (151 pages) but it is crammed with information. In the 1947 Year Book of the British Iris Society, Spender wrote Miss Pesel’s obituary. The article is filled with praise for her many talents and achievements. Lauding her artistic genius, Spender was not quite so kind in discussing her writing abilities. He went so far as to say that “her spelling was so unorthodox that, in collaborating with her, proof-reading became something of a nightmare….”

But the words in the obituary which have been in my mind ever since I first read it years ago are these: “Beneath a rather farouche exterior she had a generous and sympathetic heart, and during her last years she spent much of her remaining strength and time in aiding various Prisoners-of-War causes, which activities many will not forget. She was indefatigable in everything which aroused her sympathy or evoked her interest.” The little book that Mr. Spender and Miss Pesel wrote together shows a bit of the farouche, a bit of the “indefatigable,” and an abundance of their love for irises. If you find a copy, covered with dust, in a book store, you will have a small diamond.

~ Reprinted from ROOTS, Vol 10, Issue 1, Spring 1997.