Irises of Note: Snow Flurry

– Excerpted from Irises by Harry Randall,
Taplinger Publishing Co. Inc., NY, 1969

This was raised by a Californian lady, Clara Rees, who, with quite a modest collection, began to hybridize irises in 1926. If the story of how she succeeded in raising this most outstanding iris had been written for some fictional magazine the editor might have turned it down as being too far-fetched. But the story has been carefully verified, and it is here recorded as an encouragement to hybridizers of all ages.

Amongst her early purchases Clara Rees had obtained Thais, a rosy-mauve diploid iris raised by Cayeux in France, with 24 chromosomes, narrow petals and drooping falls. Later on her sister, Ruth Rees, bought three other irises including Purissima, a tall, white tetraploid, for $18; and Clara thought, to quote her own words, that such extravagance proved that Ruth must have taken leave of her senses. However, Clara liked the colour of Thais and in due course she crossed it with the taller Purissima in the hope or getting the rosy-mauve colouring on to a tall stem and larger flower. The aim was an admirable one, but in the ordinary course of events any resultant seedlings would have been sterile triploids with a chromosome count of 36. There was a remote chance, however — probably one in several thousand — (a) that one of the pollen grains of Thais might have more than its usual quota of chromosomes, (b) that this grain might fertilize Purissima, and (c) that any seedlings might therefore be fertile tetraploids with 48 chromosomes.

Without knowing all this at the time, and with a boldness of which Sir Michael Foster would surely have approved, Clara Rees made her famous cross and succeeded in producing one solitary seed-pod. This pod, instead of containing, as expected, from 20 to 40 seeds, yielded only two, and one of these was so shriveled that it was promptly thrown away. The remaining seed was almost discarded because Clara Rees thought that there was no use bothering with a single one; but a spark of hope kindled the fire of compassion in the Rees household, the seed was saved and sown, and it ultimately proved of greater value than the Scriptural pearl of great price. If I were a parson I could preach a tremendous sermon on this historic incident!

snow flurryIn 1938, three years after pollination, the seedling gave its first flower — not the rosy-mauve that had been hoped for, but a white slightly tinged with blue. One can imagine the delight and excitement of those who first saw the plant, winch had qualities not previously seen In a white iris — broad, ruffled petals, clear hafts, several buds in each spathe, good branching and and excellent blue-green foliage. Nothing was done with the seedling in the first year of blooming except that it was dug up, split up, and the half-dozen resultant rhizomes replanted. Next year they all flowered and caused even more excitement. The two sisters decided that something ought to be done to enable other people to see the new arrival, and Clara afterwards wrote: ‘Ruth felt that the bloom deserved the scrutiny of an experienced iris breeder, so she cut two of the individual blooms and travelled to Berkeley by street-car, train, ferry and taxi and showed them to Carl Salbach who at once asked, “Young lady, where did you get these?” Ruth told him that they had come from a seedling raised in the back yard of our home in San Jose.’ Salbach quickly visited that back yard and bought the entire stock of Snow Flurry, which had then increased to 17 rhizomes, but he allowed the raiser to keep one rhizome.

The rest of this fabulous success story is well known, but there are two misconceptions which should be removed. In his book Iris For Every Garden, Professor Mitchell whites of Snow Flurry as an ‘exhilarating example of beginner’s luck’, but the seedling flowered 12 years after Clara Rees had started to hybridize irises, and that period surely takes a breeder out of the beginner’s class. Secondly, it has been suggested that the sale of so valuable an iris must have made a fortune for the raiser. The fact is that Clara Rees received the modest sum of $150 for the stock plus $50 worth of other irises. In the Light of our later knowledge we might think that she deserved a better deal, but we must remember that its value as a parent was at first unknown, and that it might not have survived in colder climates. Years later Ruth Rees wrote:

The next chapter of the Snow Flurry story belongs to Orville Fay who, when he read the description in Salbach’s catalogue, realized that if the parentage, Purissima X Thais, was true it would be a great breeder. He therefore asked his friend, Junius Fishburne of Virginia. who was attending an Iris Convention in California, to look at the plant and answer certain questions — Were the spathes papery? Were there many buds in each socket? Was the foliage vigorous and blue-green? and so on. As the answers were all satisfactory Orville bought it, and we all know what he has done with it.

blue sapphireOther hybridizers in America acquired Snow Flurry as soon as they heard of its breeding potential, countless crosses were made, and the new iris rapidly proved herself a parent of exceptional quality, helping to produce New Snow, Violet Harmony, Celestial Snow, Blue Sapphire and many other blues and whites of equal calibre. It is interesting to note that after its appearance hybridizers for a time continued to use as parents the two other famous whites, Gudrun (raised in England about 1925) and Purissima (1927) which had until then been so popular; but when the superiority of Snow Flurry was realized the older irises inevitably and understandably faded from the scene.

It is generally accepted that Snow Flurry never yields any pollen, but I notice from the records that several cultivars have been registered as having it as their pollen parent. This means that the raisers made a mistake of some kind, or that the bees interfered with their work – a not uncommon event in iris hybridizing – or that on rare occasions Snow Flurry has produced pollen. On this point Ruth Rees wrote to me as follows:

Clara and I have never found any pollen on Snow Flurry, but we have been told that if one gets up early in the morning and goes through a lot of individual blossoms, one occasionally comes on a little pollen, and that it is such pollen that has been used in the crosses to which you refer; but our informants agree that this early-morning pollen seems to be gone – dried up, as it were – by midday.

This is a horticultural variation of the old proverb,’ It’s the early bird that catches the worm’, but I am not competent to solve the problem. I can report, however, that although she has been in cultivation for over a quarter of a century, and has many great-great-grandchildren which are even more beautiful than she is, Snow Flurry is still being used successfully as a patent in several sections of the iris family.

cahokiaA fascinating exercise for iris breeders is to study the records and prepare pedigrees of their favourites. These can be in the elaborate form adopted in our history books to trace the ancestry of kings, or in the simpler form adopted in the Book of Genesis. Using the simple form, I can record that Show Flurry crossed with Katherine Fay produced New Snow. When this was crossed with the pale blue Cahokia it ‘begot’ Cliffs of Dover, which has been the most popular white in Britain for some years; and when this was crossed with Marion Marlowe it gave Henry Shaw. From Henry Shaw came Arctic Fury, which is producing some wonderfully fine seedlings of which we are certain to hear in the the years ahead.

I do not claim, nor could it ever be proved, that all the good qualities of these five generations of seedlings came from Snow Flurry; but each one is a superb white iris possessing the special points usually associated with Snow Flurry, and few people would doubt my contention that they might never have appeared in our gardens but for her influence. Three of those named above – New Snow, Cliffs of Dover and Henry Shaw – have already won Awards of Merit in the United States, and their descendants will be considered for that honour when they have been on trial for a sufficiently lengthy period and in a wide range of gardens in different States.

The plot on Bluebird Avenue originally owned by sisters Clara and Ruth Rees was eventually purchased by Bill Maryott in 1978 and became the renowned Maryott Iris Gardens. In 1997 Maryott left the plot for new fields and the land became new home sites. You can read more of the story here

The ‘pedigree’ given could, with variations, be duplicated very many times to show the beneficent effect of Snow Flurry on large numbers of modern irises, and to indicate our indebtedness to Clara Rees. In 1964 I had the pleasure of meeting her in her home in San Jose and seeing some of the irises she had recently raised. Some of these were excellent without being epoch-making; but then, raising irises is, in a way, like breeding horses, a pastime in which you cannot breed a Derby winner every year. Whilst in San Jose, and in front of an audience, I took The opportunity of paying a tribute to her work and thanking her for the increased pleasure she had given to iris growers everywhere.