Irises of Note: Tobacco Road

– From Bulletin of AIS, April 1976


The “old guard” AIS members will have grown it or at least seen it flowering. But so widely was it used in hybridizing, and therefore so often does it appear in check list parentages, that even newer members are likely to know it by name: Tobacco Road. Its name, in fact, was a strike against it to some people who found little beauty in the play (and later movie) of that title. Associations aside, though, the connection with tobacco was perfect, as the iris’ petals were as broad, flat, and brown as a dried leaf of that plant.

To be sure, it had its faults: poor growth in warm, dry areas; a tendency to rot, especially where winters were severe. It wasn’t even the first brown self; to its grandparent Jean Cayeux should go that distinction, and other of Dr. Kleinsorge’s tan blends (especially Buckskin and Aztec Copper) could count as brown – as could a few other irises of the 1930s, notably the Dykes Medalist Copper Lustre which offered color and little more.

But the flower. . . . Broad, rounded, flatly flaring falls; closed, strong standards – and even a very well branched stem. Its best development occurred in the benign climate of west-of-the-Cascades Oregon and Washington. To see it thriving there was to be convinced that perfection had arrived.

dr. kleinsorge in his gardenThe story has been told before of Dr. Kleinsorge’s carefully planned breeding program for browns and blends carried out in a sevenly-five-foot-squarie plot. Realizing that he produced so many quality irises from 1929-1959 and that his final introduction Buckeroo, was from cross #470 – an average of about fifteen crosses per year – underscores the thought behind the planning, the near super- human restraint for a hybridizer, and his good fortune. In the chronology of crosses, Tobacco Road came from #274: Aztec Copper (#227) X #228 = Far West x Jean Cayeux. For quality of flower Aztec Copper was nearly as remarkable as Tobacco Road. What it lacked, in comparison, were style and color: broad and full it was, but without the dynamic flare; and its color was a somber, even dead, shade of brown. Aztec Copper came from the Doctor’s potent parent Far West crossed with a tan seedling of which he said, “I have no record of parentage; at the time I had a number of tan seed- lings similar to Buckskin.”

With such a sensational potential available for breeding, seedlings were soon to follow. First were Dr. Kleinsorge’s Bryce Canyon and Chamois in 1944 from Mexico X Tobacco Road, a cross that would become legendary for quality. Other hybridizers soon entered the race: Deforest registered Melodist (Salar X Tobacco Road) in 1944, and this was followed by Douglas Wilson’s Gems Of Topaz and Sueitna Sunset, both from Prairie Sunset X Tobacco Road, After that, the deluge.

In 1948 Dr, Kleinsorge brought out Pretty Quadroon, again from the Mexico cross, which was his finest product directly out of Tobacco Road. And in the same year Deforest presented Argus Pheasant (Casa Morena X Tobacco Road) which went on to win a Dykes Medal.¬†argus pheasant, pretty quadroon and casa morena¬†Ironically, not an irisarian but a daffodil breeder came up with the one iris that probably would be acclaimed as Tobacco Road’s most illustrious offspring. Oregonian Grant Mitsch tried the obvious – Mexico X Tobacco Road – and succeeded in spades with Inca Chief! There was an iris that added to its parent’s fine qualities more size, greater width, a livelier and more golden color, and some ruffling. Outside of the Pacific Northwest Inca Chief tended to be too short for the flower size, but it was nationwide a better performer than its notable parent. In no time it became the Tobacco Road of the 50s and 60s.

To list all the Tobacco Road progeny – even just the award winning ones – would be tedious and space consuming. But to cite numbers can be impressive. In the period 1942-1962, twenty years following introduction, there were 98 irises registered having Tobacco Road as one parent. The vast majority of these registrations listed it as the pollen parent (it is fully pod-fertile, but there’s no way of knowing how many of its children came from begged or borrowed pollen, or from pollen produced on plants not robust enough for motherhood). Carrying statistics into the second generation, we find in that same twenty year period 182 registrations from Tobacco Road children, from both named irises and selected seedlings. Of its named offspring used during that period, Buyce Canyon appears mest often.

To sum up Tobacco Road’s contributions to iris evolution, first would be its influence on flower form and style, and second would be good, usually self, color throughout the brown palette. Hardly a brown toned iris today is without it at least once in its pedigree. For outstanding merit as a flower and as a progenitor, the AIS Board of Directors proudly presented Tobacco Road with the Board of Directors Award last fall – with gratitude to the iris and sincere appreciation to Dr. Kleinsorge.

[Photo credits: Tobacco Road image from Cooley’s Gardens catalog for 1942. Dr. Kleinsorge in his garden from Cooley’s Gardens catalog for 1951. Please see corresponding gallery photos for varietal info and photo credit for the trio of TR offspring.]