Book Reviews: Diamonds in the Dust – Part 1

by Clarence Mahan, VA


Collecting iris books is as much fun as collecting irises. Although I began building an iris library as a means of learning more about irises, collecting old iris books became for me an end in itself, a pleasure as great as growing irises. One of the greatest pleasures has been to find little known or exceptional works which I have never read about or known before. Sometimes I find these works half hidden on a dirty shelf of some out of the way bookstore. I have found a number of these “diamonds in the dust” and would like to tell you about a few of my favorites.

iris for the little garden by ella porter mckinneyOne of the most delightful books ever written on irises is Ella Porter McKinney’s Iris in the Little Garden (Boston, 1920). Except for the mention of the cultivars in vogue in the 1920s one might think this book was written last year, so crisp and charming is the style and so expert the advice on growing irises. Mrs. McKinney’s taste is exquisite and her knowledge of irises was universal. She imparted more useful information in one hundred and ten pages than others have done in double or triple the space.

Ella Porter McKinney’s descriptions and comments on specific cultivars are invaluable to the collector of historic irises. One example: “Another element to consider in the critical selection of an iris is the quality which in people and in dogs and in horses we call breeding – a certain perfection of proportion and consistant adherance to a well-defined plan. Among tall and large irises Alcazar (early) and Ambassadeur (late) are conspicuous examples of poise and breeding, while Mlle. Schwartz and Sindjkha rarely carry an upright stem – a Hoydenish tendency we may forgive in a small plant like Tom Tit, but not in plants patterned on such superb plans.” What a wealth of information on five cultivars in one short paragraph!

I have only one regret about my purchase of E.A. Bowles’ three “My Garden” series volumes, and that is, when afforded the oppourtunity to aquire a 1914/1915 first edition set, I opted instead for a set of the 1972 reprints. However, even the reprint set has become increasingly difficult to obtain. The first volume, My Garden in Spring, has two chapters which focus on early blooming species and varieties and a number of other references to irises and their use in the garden. There are a number of wonderful photographs in all three volumes, and the one of “Iris florentina in May” facing page 116 of My Garden in Spring is itself worth the price of the book.

Bowles’ second volume, My Garden in Summer, is of special interest to the historic iris enthusiest. A large section of this book is devoted to tall bearded and beardless cultivars. My Garden in Fall and Winter, the third book in the trilogy, does not have much on irises. Noetheless, all three books contain much of interest on a multitude of subjects, and one really should have all three volumes.

My dear friend George C. Bush of York, Pennsylvania, first suggested I aquire Eden Phillpotts’ My Garden (London, 1906). This wonderful book was never republished and is much sought after by knowledgeable collectors of horticultural books. Three entire chapters deal exclusively with irises and the book has seventeen outstanding photographs of irises.

Phillpotts wrote: “I have loved that grand lilaceous trinity, the lily,the iris, and the gladiolus, for many years; and sometimes the lily has been first in my affections and sometimes the iris, with the gladiolus always a good third. But, slowly and surely, the iris has won the highest place, and henceforth she is safe, for I am too old to change anymore.” There is an abundance of interesting material on historic irises in My Garden, and it is apparant upon reading the book that Philpotts’ words are sincere.

The Flowers and Gardens of Japan is an “A & C Black” book which states on the cover that it was “Painted by Ella Ducane, Described by Florence Ducane.” Published in 1908, it contains ourstanding reproductions of fifty outstanding painting of Japanese flowers and gardens, quite a few of which have Japanese irises as their principal subject. An entire chapter is devoted to irises native to Japan. A & C Black books are a collector’s item all unto themselves, and The Flowers and Gardens of Japan is a special prize to those of us who prize Japanese and species irises.

iris for the little garden by ella porter mckinneyKnowing that the English botanist and superb horticulturist Sir Arthur Hort had a passion for irises, I suspected the two gardening books he wrote, The Unconventional Garden (London, 1928) and Garden Variety (London, 1935) would contain much of interest on irises. Thus I purchased these books sight unseen from a mail order dealer in old books. Upon receipt I found I had two treasures in hand. Garden Variety, edited and published after Hort’s death, is not the “finished” work that The Unconventional Garden is, but it is an excellent read and contains much valuable information on irises.

It would be difficult to praise The Unconventional Garden too highly. It is filled with wisdom and ideas based on Hort’s personal experience. Hort, for all his erudition has a warm and chatty style which makes you know at once that he must have been a man of great charm and wit.

The chapter on irises in The Unconventional Garden begins with these words: “The great genus iris must have a chapter to itself, partly because under reasonably favorable conditions it provides flowers out of doors for ten months of the year (so that the complaint often heard that, though lovely, irises are soon over, is founded on an incomplete induction), partly for the personal reason that the present writer, though fairly catholic in his tastes, has devoted to it more time and attention than any other genus… If we like to air our knowledge of Greek and speak darkly of ‘Apogons’ and ‘pogon-irises,’ no harm is done, but surely the Saxon equivalents ‘bearded’ and ‘beardless’ are good enough.”

Even Sir Arthur’s “put-downs” are charming, e.g. “an incomplete induction,” “no harm is done.” The book is filled with useful and interesting information on iris species and historic irises, e.g. “The well known pallida dalmatica, by the way, does not come from Dalmatia, but is probably a garden-form.”

the iris - n. leslie caveMany historic enthusiasts are familiar with N. Leslie Cave’s The Iris, both the original edition published in 1950, and the revised (and improved) edition published in 1959. However, I have been surprised that Cave’s little volume Irises for Everyone (London, 1960) is so little known. The cover has a lovely photograph of Staten Island, and there are some nice photographs and drawings in this wee 96 page work. (One charming photograph of dwarf irises growing among flagstones has stirred a desire in me to build a flagstone walk.)

Irises for Everyone was meant to appeal to the “ordinary gardener” and Cave unabashedly states that he is motivated to “sell” the iris as a wonderful flower in the garden. It is a sound work and contains a healthy amount of material which should be of interest to those interested in historic irises.

The Iris, edited by G.I. Rodionenko (Moscow, 1981), is written in both Russian and English. It is filled with scores of colored photographs of both species irises and hybrid iris cultivars, many of them now qualifying to be called “historic”. This is a most interesting and attractive work which received very little publicity in this country. Examples of some of the colored photographs: Madame Chereau, Elizabeth Noble, Blue Shimmer, Dancer’s Veil, Lady Mohr, Sally Kerlin, Color Carnival, Crispette, Cliifs of Dover. There are some transliteration errors, e.g. “Kliffs of Dover” instead of “Cliffs of Dover,” but these do not detract from the value of the work. Of special interest are cultivars of Russian origen with Russian names.

iris ambassadeur
from Garden Bulbs in Color

If you are interested in collecting books on historic irises, be on the lookout for Garden Bulbs in Color (New York, 1945). There is only a small section on irises in this book BUT it contains marvelous colored pictures of Ambassadeur, Pallida Dalmatica, Shekinah, Souv. De Mme Gaudichau, Kharput, Perry’s Blue and a few others. Whatever the price, I should have aquired this book for the picture of the great yellow pallida Shekinah.

I do not wish to slight notable works of Dykes, Cave, Randall, Baker, Wister, Pesel and Spender, Price and the other distinguished writers on irises by not mentioning them in this article. This little article is meant to describe a few “iris books” that may not be so well known to iris enthusiasts. If you can find them I am sure they will bring you as much enjoyment as they have brought me. happy hunting.

~ Reprinted from ROOTS, Vol 4, Issue 1, Spring 1991.