Book Reviews: Even More Diamonds in the Dust – Part 3

by Clarence Mahan, VA


The voracious collector of iris books is at least as determined in his pursuit as the collector of iris plants. I would be more than a little embarrassed to tell you all the extremes to which I have gone to locate and obtain a desired volume on irises. Although sometimes embarrassing, I have stayed within acceptable bounds of legality and ethics. However, I have not been above enlisting family members and friends in my searches, nor have I been disinclined to consume many hours in book hunts when the garden needed weeding or other work remained to be done.

One of my more foolhardy ‘methods’ has been to order an old book from a catalogue on the guess that it would contain information on irises. When possible, I have inquired of the bookseller whether the book in question contained material on irises, but this is not always possible, and so I have on a number of occasions just sent my order with a hope and a prayer. There have been times, I admit, that the guess has been wrong and I have bought a book that added nothing to my iris literature collection. But more often than not I have been right.

One of my ‘stabs in the dark’ brought me Le Jardin du Crest: Notes sur les Végétaux Cultive en Plein Air au Chateau du Crest by Marc Micheli. I suspected this book, published in Geneva, Switzerland in 1896, might contain valuable iris material for good reason. Marc Micheli is mentioned in British horticultural literature, particularly with reference to oncocyclus and regelia irises. The volume I purchased turned out to be a presentation copy signed by the author to the eminent nurseryman Henri de Vilmorin. Le Jardin du Crest is a flora detailing taxonomic and other information on all the plants grown and studied in the chateau garden, including 117 irises considered species in the late 1800s. The book contains a number of excellent drawings including one featuring Iris ensata (syn. I. Kaempferi) growing in a field.

Iris robins are a wonderful way to learn more about irises and to make new ‘iris friends.’ Over the years I have made hundreds of friends through robins. One such friend is a dear lady in New Zealand who just happens to love books as much as I do. After much search she was able to obtain the two books I had long sought: The Iris and Its Culture (Melbourne and Sydney) by Jean Stevens and Jean Stevens on Irises (New Zealand Iris Society, 1970), edited by K. Glasgow and B. E. Turnbull.

The Iris and Its Culture is a wonderful book. Jean Stevens was one of the most knowledgeable authorities on irises in her day. She bred many significant new cultivars, the great yellow amoena Pinnacle being perhaps the most famous. the iris and its culture - jean stevensIn 1953, the British Iris Society awarded her the coveted Foster Memorial Plaque. The Iris and Its Culture is not only well written, but also unique in its lessons on iris breeding and growing. The reader must, of course, remember that the seasons of the year ‘down under’ are the opposite of ours. Listen to the wisdom Jean Stevens imparts to the aspiring hybridizer:

“Colour without form, colour without substance, would have no value in an iris, even to those gardeners who apparantly see nothing but the colours of their flowers. It is form and substance which give character and perspective to colour. actually, lovely form and beautiful substance can elevate a mediocre colour, and give it distinction. Lovely colour without form or substance is characterless, and carries no appeal to that aesthetic taste which moves us to grow flowers….”

My second book from New Zealand, Jean Stevens on Irises, is a small, 52 page soft bound collection of previously published articles written by Jean Stevens. All the articles are excellent. One of my favorite is “Iris Gems for the Rock Garden” in which the virtues of I. minutoaurea, ruthenica and gracilipes are extolled. If only I had read this article before I spent years trying to get Iris gracilipes started in my garden in autumn! Only try it in early spring! The article entided “The Start of Pinnacle” will interest every historic iris enthusiast.

I would never have known about Glad McArthur’s Lifetime of Gardening (Dunedin New Zealand, 1992) had not my New Zealand robin friend written to me about it. Through her efforts, I obtained a copy and was delighted. Glad McArthur wrote a gardening column for the Central Otago News from 1956 to 1992. She loved irises, and this is reflected in the book. Although not an ‘iris book’ per se, it reveals much about irises and iris growing in New Zealand during the years the author was gardening and writing Among the various iris items in this book is this bit of history: “Bearded iris are starting to flower everywhere and here locally will be at their best this coming weekend. Yesterday I went over to see the Convention Planting at Mr. and Mrs. Falconer’s home on Bridge Hill. Dr. Clark Coscrove, who attended our convention ten years ago, left a legacy to provide three hundred dollars worth of iris which are grown for two years and sold each convention to provide another three hundred dollars worth of iris for the convention two years away…”

i. persica - j.p. redoute

I.. persica – J.P. Redoute

Two of my iris books were obtained from Edward R. Hamilton, Bookseller, Falls Village, CT 06031-5000. If you love books and low prices, you can write and ask for a price list. [Now online at: – Mike] Every few weeks you will get a price list that looks like a newspaper with hundreds of’ ‘bargain books.’ I was fortunate to get A Redouté Treasury (Secaucus, NJ, 1986), with text by Peter and Frances Mallary, and P.J. Redouté Lilies and Related Flowers (London, 1981) with text by Brian Mathew. Both of these books contain reproductions of Redouté’s exquisite paintings of irises.

Of these two books, there are more plates of irises in A Redoute Treasury and they are excellent reproductions. Unfortunately, the editors have done a horrible job in their efforts to properly identify the various irises. There are not as many plates in the other book, but the text by Brian Mathew is, as one might suspect, outstanding. I consider myself fortunate to have both volumes, and refer to them often.

A true ‘diamond in the dust’ is Traite des Fleurs (Paris, 1765) which has an entire chapter on irises. Five types of irises are identified and discussed at some length: L’Iris de Suse; L’Irisblanche enflammée; L’Iris de Perse; L’Iris de Portugal (also called Iris d’Andalousie) and L’Iris blanche simple. This book, in French, reveals much about iris growing in France before De Bure, Jacques and Lémon transformed the various species and near species into a beautiful garden perennial during the 19th century.

H. G. Witham Fogg’s Irises for your Garden (Tonbridge, Kent, 1957) came from a British bookseller from whom I had requested assistance in finding iris books. It is a volume in the series called Foyle’s Handbooks. Although it is a small book with only 90 pages, it is a quite excellent handbook for the iris specialist or general gardener. Those who are students of historic irises will find Fogg’s listings of the best cultivars in the various color classes quite interesting.

Many readers will be familiar with Sydney B. Mitchell’s Iris for Every Garden (New York, 1949) or the revised edition of the same work published in 1960. your california garden and mine - sidney b mitchellThe 1960 edition was revised and brought up to date by Molly Price. It certainly should be in the library of every historic iris collector. The book has wonderful drawings, and the revised edition has some excellent color plates of a number of irises, including Violet Harmony, Happy Birthday and Golden Sunshine. The book provides excellent comprehensive coverage of all aspects of irises and iris growing. It also contains invaluable material on iris breeding history.

Not so well known, but equally valuable works covering irises and iris history are two other books by Sydney Mitchell. These two books are From a Sunset Garden (New York 1932) and Your California Garden and Mine (New York 1947). From a Sunset Garden has separate chapters on bulbous and beardless irises, bearded irises, and breeding irises. Much of the information in this work is invaluable iris history that will be found nowhere else. Here is an example of the in- formation Mitchell imparts in From a Sunset Garden:

“The first task of a breeder is to gather a stud, that is a collection of varieties known to transmit the qualities desired to their descendants. I suggest two. Here is the beginner’s: Dominion, Bruno, Cardinal for the Dominion qualities of richness, velvet, substance; Kashmir White and Argentina for white; Shekineh and Mrs. Neubronner for yellow; Dejazet, Sherbet, Mme. Cherie, Glowing Embers, bronzes for yellow and blends; Conquistador, Esplendido, Santa Barbara for the qualities of the mesopotamica race; Parisiana for plicata; Aphrodite, Sindjkha, Sunset, Gaudichau, Lent A. Williamson, and perhaps either Majestic or E.H. Jenkins, the last pair being tall, vigorous varieties to give height by several of our most productive breeders. An advanced stud, naturally more expensive, might include Purissima for white; San Francisco and Sacramento for plicatas; W.R. Dykes, Alta California, Pluie d’Or, and Helios for yellow; Claude Aureau and Camelliard for variegatas; Sir Michael, King Tut, and Grace Sturtevant, and one of the recent american reds, Indian Chief, Dauntless, or Rubeo. Some irises, fine in themselves, are poor parents; they seem to be the culmination of their line and so of no value for breeding. Such are Frieda Mohr and Mme. Durrand. Others have defects – the dwarf stature of Her Majesty, the bandy-legged falls of Isoline, the open standards of Alcazar, the poor constitution of Iris King, which they are likely to transmit to their offspring.”

Your California Garden and Mine has only one chapter on irises, but it is remarkably comprehensive and covers all types of irises. There are many gems of wisdom in this book. Perhaps younger readers will find some of Mitchell’s comments a bit quaint, such as when he discusses Japanese irises: “There is no room in gardens for prejudice, but there is a place in many of them for Japanese irises, just as there is one in opera for Madame Butterfly.” These words are not at all quaint when one remembers that everything Japanese was anathema to most Americans as a result of WWII. The development of Japanese irises was set back at least a generation because of bombing destruction and dedication of land to food production in Japan, and the stigma attached to anything labeled ‘Japanese’ in America.

national iris gardens - 1942

Offer for ‘Pearl harbor Iris’
from national iris Gardens catalog for 1942

Last year I was vividly reminded of WW II’s devastating impact on Japanese iris growing and development when Kay Nelson-Keppel sent me a copy of a page from the 1942 catalogue of the National Iris Gardens, which was in Beaverton, Oregon. The term ‘Japanese iris’ was not to be found, as these irises were listed under the name ‘Pearl Harbor Iris.’ Only Japanese irises with non-Japanese names were offered in the catalogue.

If you are interested in expanding your knowledge of irises, there is no activity that will be more productive than building a good iris library. (Signing up for a few iris robins will help, too.) Unfortunately, the more books you find, the harder and harder it becomes to identify and locate a ‘new’ iris book. For the true collector, this only means efforts must be redoubled and more inventive methods must be devised – but do not doubt that in poking through the dust, there are diamonds to be found.

~ Reprinted from ROOTS, Vol 8, Issue 1, Spring 1995.