Book Reviews: More Diamonds in the Dust – Part 2

by Clarence Mahan, VA

Sometime back I wrote an article for ROOTS which extolled the joys of collecting old books and other literature relating to irises. In the article I described books which I had been able to find which were like “diamonds in the dust” on the shelves of old bookstores. The reaction I received to this article revealed that collecting iris literature is a popular pursuit of quite a few members of the Historic Iris Preservation Society. And so, here I am, back again to describe a few more books worth hunting.

My search for Amos Perry’s Diary (Enfield, 1946) extended over several years, but, once found, was well worth the effort. This book was privately printed in only a few hundred copies. This wonderful historical record identifies every plant Amos Perry introduced to commerce, and there are hundreds in the areas covered by the chapters of the book; Alpines and Perennials, Aquatics and Nymphaeas, Asters, Chrysanthemums, Delphiniums, Ferns, Hemerocallis, Lilliums, Papaver, and, of course, Irises. Each cultivar is described, and comments and additional descriptive details which appeared in magazines and books follow the description.

The photographs are in black and white but are of good quality. These irises are pictured: Margo Holmes, Chrysobirica, Tewat, Watbract, Longwat, Lord Lambourne, Duke of York, J.C. Weld, Mrs. H.F, Bowles, and Mrs. W. Cuthbertson. If you can locate a copy of this invaluable work, seize the opportunity to obtain it. It is difficult to imagine a price too high.

Another gem that must be hunted for is Sir Michael Foster’s 1891 Bulbous Irises. This monograph is the only work on irises by Foster that was published in book form, and it contains a wealth of information available no place else. Foster’s knowledge came not only from extensive study, but also from growing and observing the irises he described. Then too, this work would be a treasure even if it were without narrative for it contains many reproductions of woodcuts by Caparne. The only word that comes dose to describing Caparne’s work is “exquisite.”

A taste of the information to be had in Bulbous Irises, in this instance dealing with the differences between the Spanish iris and the English iris: “The differences between the two are many and striking. The foliage in the English is much broader than in the Spanish Iris, and while the latter often ‘spears’, and with me always does so in late autumn, the shoot appearing as an awl-like spike, the latter does not appear until spring, and the shoot on its first appearance has more the form of a nipple. The parts of the flower of the Spanish Iris are narrow, rigid, formal, the fall is extended more or less horizontally, and the style lies close down upon the fall, so that the tunnel leading to the nectar is very complete; by reason of these features, the flower has a striking resemblance to that of the ‘spuria’ group of rhizomatous Iris.” This is followed by details on how the parts of the English Iris differ. Then the two irises are contrasted in their color, bulb features, capsule, and finally seed.

irisesA more recent work, and one which is much easier to obtain, is a delightful little Wisley handbook called appropriately enough, Irises (London 1990) by Sidney Linnegar and Jennifer Hewitt. It is soft cover and has only 64 pages, but it is filled with wisdom and gorgeous colored photographs. I guarantee that you will love this little book. Believe it or not, my copy came from a used book dealer in New England.

If you do not have Louise Beebe Wilder’s classic Adventures with Hardy Bulbs (New York, 1936), do get it. There is a paperback edition (New York, 1990), which contains a foreword by Allen Lacy. This work has a section on irises which, like the rest of the book on other bulbous plants, is replete with cultural information, innovative suggestions on landscape uses, and all sorts of other interesting “tips.” I obtained my copy of the paperback for a couple of dollars in a discount book store. For less than the price of a sandwich I obtained a treasure of interesting reading on irises. Such a book is worth a lunch!

I had never read or heard of Natives Preferred (Baton Rouge, 1965), but when I saw it on a used book list and noticed that it was written by Caroline Dormon, I took a chance and bought it. This brought me a lovely little book with a chapter on native irises along with drawings by Ms. Dormon. Iris books show up in the most remarkable ways.

Several “new” iris books are in the mail headed my way even as I write. One of these books is flora simlensis (Calcutta, Simla and London, 1902) by H. Collett. How did I know this is an “iris” book? Why, it is listed in the bibliography in Dykes’ The Genus lris. Reading the bibliographies of books on irises is one of the ways diamonds can be identified. Then, sifting through the dust is how the “diamonds” are found. Good hunting!

~ Reprinted from ROOTS, Vol 7, Issue 1, Spring 1994.