– A Pioneer Irisarian
By Anne Lowe, Va.
Bertrand H. Farr was born in mountainous Windham, Vermont on October 14, 1863. When he was five his family moved west and took up residence in the Lake Geneva/Rochester areas of Wisconsin. Three years later when Bertrand was 8, the family put down permanent roots in Webster City, Iowa, where his father established a cattle farm on the prairie. The prairie was wild and beautiful and carpeted with wild flowers. This setting nurtured young Bertrand’s love for flowers — an interest that would only increase as the years went by.
Following his graduation from high school in Webster City, Farr spent a year and a half at the Seminary in Rochester (near Milwaukee) where he graduated at the age of 17 and, after receiving a teaching certificate, he took a position as an Iowa country teacher. Meanwhile his mother had purchased a piano and Bertrand took some lessons. Soon family, friends and even B. himself thought that he was a music prodigy, and in the fall of 1883 he went to Boston to study music at the New England Conservatory. While he was there he could not resist the temptation to play ‘hooky’ by spending much time with the rare collection of plants at the celebrated greenhouse of John Hovey in Cambridge. Farr admits to spending extravagantly on plants for the window in his room.
After two years it became apparent that he wasn’t and never would be a musical prodigy despite the fact that he was proficient in the playing of a number of instruments. Since he had to earn a living he turned to learning the business of piano tuning and eventually returned to Iowa to open a music store in Webster City. It is interesting to note that, during the Boston years, the future Mrs. Farr was also studying music at the Conservatory. However, Anna Willis and Bertrand did not meet until both had returned to Iowa — she as church organist and he as choir leader in the Congregational Church in their home town.
Unable to separate himself from his love of music, Bernard returned to Boston in 1886, intent on pursuing some sort of career in this field. However, early on he received (and accepted) a job offer as salesman with a Philadelphia music business and, during the 5 years of this employment, his business travels often took him to the town of Reading, Pennsylvania. He liked the area and he eventually established his own piano tuning and musical instrument business in that city. His father and mother came to live with him for 2-3 years and Bertrand bought a house with a small side yard where he could have a flower bed.
As an active Republican Farr was instrumental in organizing the ‘Boro’ of Wyomissing in 1906. He served as its first Burgess (mayor) and for many years served the town in a number of capacities. In 1896 he bought a property there and, leaving the building of a house to the architect, he went to Iowa to marry His New England Conservatory Girl in 1906. This house was the first residence built in Wyomissing and was completed in 1909. (it is still occupied)
It was no secret that Bertrand Farr had always loved plants and flowers, and he continued to visit gardens and nurseries wherever he happened to be. He was often heard to say, “Blessed is he who has a hobby and can make it his business.” In Wyomissing he had ample room for a garden and he began collecting peonies and irises. However, he soon realized that his goal to collect “every variety” was unrealistic! After he sold the Reading music store and started his own Bertrand H. Farr Wyomissing Nurseries Co. (incorporated in 1916), his hobby did indeed become a business. In 1924 the nursery name was changed to Farr Nursery Company with the motto “Better Plants by Farr.” Ever the landscape artist, his own gardens and those of others for whom he designed plantings (using plants from his nursery) were unfailingly beautiful. A local newspaper wrote: “A glory of color…are the wonderful flower fields of Mr. Farr — irises, poppies, roses and peonies (not to mention azaleas, columbines, daylilies and phlox!) make a wonderful sense of beauty at his home.” He was known as a fine and kindly man who always encouraged young people to adopt plant culture and landscaping as a profession and many of his garden workers were university trained in landscape. At the time of his death, his business was considered one of the largest of its kind in America.
When Bertrand was eight, he obtained a ‘piney toe’ from his aunt in return for bringing in the family cow for a week. He often said that this was the beginning of his lifelong love affair with the peony which ultimately led to the establishment of the famous peony planting in Wyomissing. Bertrand was as fond of peonies as he was of irises and Wyomissing boasted one of the most varied collections of peonies in the world. In 1909, (probably as a result of his vocal enthusiasm for the plant and related issues) he was elected President of the American Peony Society (Est. 1903) and he held this office for 8 years. He, more than anyone else, is responsible for the standardizing of the peony nomenclature. For years he spent the entire bloom season at the Cornell trial grounds, working to straighten out the very mixed-up nomenclature of the 2500+ varieties listed in catalogs.
In 1908 Mr. Farr issued the first of a series of beautiful catalogs which have become popular among collectors of such memorabilia. Catalog of Hardy Plant Specialties presented to the American public for the first time, the classification of irises established by Peter Barr in England in 1885. These catalogs made available to American growers the newest English, French and German varieties. The irises were well described and the color plates were highly acclaimed for their detail and accuracy. At the time of his death Farr had over 1200 iris cultivars, possibly the largest single collection of irises in the country. Needless to say, he was a charter member of the American Iris Society.
During 1923 a new nursery location was obtained by purchasing the homestead of Conrad Weiser in Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania. Twenty acres were set aside for Weiser Park. The monumental task of relocating the plants and shrubs was begun and it was estimated that this endeavor would be completed by 1926. It took a bit longer than expected and it was not until 1928 that the nursery was reestablished and operating at Weiser Park.
On October 11, 1924, Bertrand H. Farr died at his home in Wyomissing following an attack of high blood pressure that culminated in a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. He was buried on October 15th in his boyhood town of Webster City, Iowa amid his beloved prairie wildflowers and bobolinks. He was survived by his wife and his younger sister, Nella (Mrs. J. O.) Crawford of Chicago. The couple had no children.
On November 6, 1924, Anna W. Farr was elected as President of the Farr Nursery and the business subsequently became more devoted to evergreens, woody plants and ornamental trees than irises and peonies. A year later Farr employees Harold G. Seyler and two partners purchased Mrs. Farr’s interest in the Nursery and by 1928 the nursery was fully functional in Womelsdorf, providing a large variety of plant and landscape services. Anna returned to her native Iowa where, following her death (no date found) she was buried next to her husband.
In 1965 control of the company was assumed by Harold Seyler’s son John who put the Farr Nursery and Landscape Company up for sale in 1987. Five key company employees, who had essentially been running the business, purchased the lands and business from John at that time. Each of these men was a department head, trained and experienced in his own field. The current president is Richard C. Hawk (Penn State 1977) who was one of “The Five”. He has been most charming and helpful in providing information of the past and present status of the Farr Nursery and Landscape business. Rich has sent copies of letters and catalog information not found elsewhere, and he also gave us the glass lantern slide of Rose Unique taken in the Farr garden at Wyomissing. From this we were able to produce the picture you see here. After reading the current nursery brochure I feel that Mr. Farr would be most pleased that his ‘hobby’ remains a thriving business.
On hearing of Farr’s death, AIS President John Wister wrote: “Mr. Farr has done much for the iris in America, for it is due to him, more than any other one person or group of persons, that the iris has attained its present popularity here. He was the first to import a collection of modern, improved varieties, and was the first to place these before the gardening public. He was also the first to breed and introduce new varieties among which are…”
Richardson Wright, Editor House and Garden, wrote the following tribute which appeared in BAIS #14: “The garden of the American home is richer for Bertrand H. Farr having lived; and in his passing he leaves behind him in countless homes, memorials that will grow richer and more beautiful with the years. He took intangible idealism and love for flowers and fashioned with these a very real standard by which beauty can be hereafter judged.
“Each season will bring a fresh remembrance of him, from the earliest blossom of spring to the last sere leaf of autumn. May he rest in peace, content with his labors.” Indeed!
A listing of irises creations by Bertrand Farr:
Introductions by Bertrand Farr.
Note: Introductions post 1924 were his creations that were introduced after his death by the nursery.
ALETHA – 1913, TB M W8, Standards and Falls pure white with a heavy border of dark violet purple.
ANNA FARR – 1913, TB M W2, (Farr 1913) Standards White lightly bordered pale blue; Falls white with pale blue markings at the base. Immense flower with very large petals of great substance, wide spreading, horizontal falls producing an orchid like effect.
APACHE – 1926, IB M S9D, Standards coppery vinous purple, shading lighter at the base, with brown reticulations. Falls a dark crimson grown with heavy reticulations; beard yellow, stigmas buff, shaded violet.
BERTRAND H FARR – 1925
BLUE JAY – 1913, TB 30″ ML B3D, Standards bright clear blue. Falls intense dark blue.
BRANDYWINE – 1920, TB M B1L, Standards and Falls pale silvery blue, distinct orange beard. The general effect is clear China blue. It is similar to CRUSADER, but pronounced by those who have seen it to be superior.
CATTLEYA – 1926, TB 27″ M B7L Cattelyn bright clear pink.
CATALOSA – 1923, TB 30″ M S3D, Standards cream flushed rose, extra large high dome shaped; Falls very long, pure soft violet, heavily reticulated creamy white.
CECIL MINTURN – 1922, TB 24″ ML R7L, Standards and Falls a uniform shade of soft cattleya rose. Large dome shaped flower with light beard freely produced on strong stems. (also listed as Cecile Minturn)
CHESTER J. HUNT – 1913, TB 27″ B3M, Celestial blue; Falls dark mauve blue, marine blue, shading at the base. Stigmas light blue. [Listed as Chester Hunt in 1915], (pallida x neglecta)
COMANCHE – 1926, TB B1D, [Name Commanche not acceptible]
CONESTOGA – 1930, TB 40″ B1D, Giant dark blue.
E.L. CRANDALL – 1915, IB 18″ M W2, Standards pure white, wide. Falls white heavily bordered deep blue at the base, 18″.
ELDORADO – 1913, [name changed to Minnehaha, see below].
ERICH – 1913, TB 36″ R7M, (pall.) Standards bright, light violet flushed rose; Falls bright violet purple. Large wide standards and falls.
GEORGIA – 1920, TB EM R7M, Standards, falls and stigmas of uniform cattleya rose; bright orange beard, a delicate and beautiful variety.
GLORY OF READING – 1909, TB 30″ M B1M, Standards deep blue; Falls deep royal purple, conspicuous orange beard. Large handsome flower, very fragrant.
HIAWATHA – 1913, TB 30″ M B9D, Standards pale lavender flushed rose. Falls royal purple bordered lavender.
HUGO – 1913, TB 33″ M R7M, (pall.) Standards petunia violet; Falls deep purple. Wide spreading flower.
INCA – 1922, TB M Y9D (Farr 1922) [The Inca], Might be called a much improved Pfauenauge, but of taller growth, stronger and of more brilliant coloring. Standards clear deep saffron yellow; Falls velvety dark plum, edged gold in medial line and reticulations at the base. One of the most brilliant varieties
IROQUOIS – 1909, TB ML S9D, Standards smoky lavender, dotted brown; Falls black maroon, reticulated white at base, tall and very striking.
JAMES BOYD – 1915, TB M B3M, Standards Immense broad incurved forming a high dome shaped center clear light blue; Falls dark violet, tipped and edged lighter. A broadly expanded flower.
JAPANESQUE – 1922, TB M B3M, Standards lavender white flecked violet; Falls spreading horizontally in the form of a Japanese iris, gives the flower the effect of having six petals and no standards.
JEAN RIBAUD – 1909
JUNIATA – 1909, TB 48″ ML B1M, Standards and falls beautiful clear blue, deeper than Dalmatica. Very large sweet scented flower. Unusually long slender foliage.
LEDA – 1909, IB 24″ M W8, Standards white, frilled and dotted rose lilac. Falls white.
LEWIS TROWBRIDGE – 1913, TB 33″ M B1L, (pall) Standards bright violet; Falls Blue violet, sanded rose. Very large flower with wide standards and falls.
LUCY – 1912, TB 30″ B1M, Standards sulphur splashed lilac; Falls full lilac
LUTEA MACULATA – 1912, DB [dwarf] E Y4L, Yellow far above average.
MARY GARDEN – 1912, IB 28″ L S3M, Standards pure yellow flushed pale lavender; long drooping falls, creamy white minutely dotted and veined maroon; stigmas clear yellow.
MARY GRAY – 1913, TB M B1M, Standards clear lavender blue; Falls dark lobelia blue. Handsome large flower.
MARY ORTH – 1920, IB M S3M, Standards light blue violet; Falls dark blue violet, A large dome shaped flower of good form and color. One of the 5 best iris sellers of the new Farr seedlings.
MASSASOIT – 1916, TB M B1M, Standards and falls very distinct shade of metallic Venetian rose, quite difficult to describe accurately.
MINNEHAHA – 1913, TB 24″ M Y9L, [originally ELDORADO] Standards creamy white, shaded yellow. Falls creamy white heavily reticulated maroon; stigmas clear yellow, fragrant, very large.
MOHAWK – 1925, TB M Y5M
MONTEZUMA – 1909, IB 18″ M Y5M, Standards deep golden minutely dotted brown; Falls yellow and white, veined purple and dotted brown; odd, beautiful, unique.
MOUNT PENN – 1909, TB M S9M, [Mt. Penn], (pall), Standards Lavender rose; Falls crimson lilac, deep orange beard.
MILDRED PRESBY – 1923, TB M W9, Standards white; Falls rich, dark, velvety pansy violet with narrow edge of lavender white. Has made a splendid record and nothing comparable to it for garden use.
NAVAJO IB 20″ ML S6M, Standards light bronzy yellow shaded lavender; Falls deep maroon heavily veined white and yellow; Stigmas yellow; deep orange beard.
NOKOMIS- 1915, IB M W3, Standards pale lavender white; Falls velvety, dark violet blue. Medium sized flowers of rounded form.
ORIENTAL – 1913, TB 32″ M B3D, (pall.) Standards clear blue, Falls rich royal blue with a heavy, bright orange beard, forming a striking contrast.
PALLIDA PERFECTA – 1912, TB B7M, Soft rosy violet with orange beard.
PAULINE – 1913, TB 36″ M B7D, (pall.) Standards and Falls unusually large, rich pansy violet, deep orange bard. Fragrant.
PAXATAWNY – 1918, TB 36″ M S3L, A lovely study in soft pastel shades, unique in its delicate beauty. Standards pale parma violet with sulphur yellow suffusion deepening at base; Falls darker with brown and yellow reticulations. Elegant form with broad divisions.
POCAHONTAS – 1915, IB M S3L, Very large orchid type flowers with elegantly frilled petals. Standards and falls are pure white, standards faintly bordered blue.
POWHATEN – 1913, TB 38″ M R7M, [originally AURORA], (pall.) Standards light bishop’s violet with deeper border; Falls deep purple with crimson shade. Large, horizontal, spreading flower.
QUAKER LADY – 1909, TB 28″ M S3L, Recieved Medal of Honor at the Panama American Exposition. Dainty and charming. Admired by all. Standards smoky lavender; Falls bluish and old gold.
RED CLOUD – 1913, IB 24″ M S9M, Standards rosy lavender bronze; Falls velvety maroon crimson; yellow markings. Stigmas old gold.
RICHMOND – (after 1924), TB
ROSE UNIQUE – 1910, IB 18″M R9M, A very early variety flowering with the germanica section. Color of standards and falls bright violet rose, the nearest approach to pink iris.
SEAGULL – 1922, TB 24″ M W3, [originally Sea Shell], Standards white dome shaped; Falls white, faintly shaded blue, with network of narrow blue lines or veins. Large, distinct. A large unusual flower appropriately named.
SEMINOLE – 1920, TB 29″ M R9D, [Elminole, Seminola], One of the richest colored varieties. Standards soft violet rose; Falls rich velvety crimson; brilliant orange beard. Blooms exceptionally large, dome shaped, a really beautiful iris with rich colored flowers and sturdy growth. Very free flowering and reliable. H.M 1920
SHREWSBURY – 1916, TB M R9M, Standards rosy bronze; Falls violet purple with brighter shading; the conspicuous orange beard forms a contrast with the other colors.
SUSQUEHANNA (after 1924), TB
SWATERA – 1918, TB 36″ M S3M, [Swatara] Standards lobelia blue, suffused bronzy yellow yellow at base; Falls bright violet with conspicuous orange beard. Coloring rich and warm. Large flower of fine form.
TECUMSEH – 1910, TB 36″ S6M, [Tecumsette] Standards buff, Falls smoky violet, bordered yellow; smoky spathe valves.
TROCELESTIAL – 1912, TB M B1L, [Cypriana celestial, Trojana celestial] Rich and aristocratic blue.
TROMAGNIFICA TB M B1M (Farr 1912) [Trojana magnifica] Purple bicolor varieties with falls deep blue purple. Tall varieties.
TROSUPURBA – 1912, TB 32″ M B3M [Trojana superba] Standards soft pale blue, Falls rich clear violet purple netted over with white.
UTE CHIEF – 1920, TB Farr Large purple almost identical with ALCAZAR.
WINDHAM – 1909, IB 24″ M R9L, [Wyndham] (pall.) Standards very soft lavender pink; Falls heavily veined with a darkershade, very large flwer. Considered by many the best.
WM C KISSNER – 1926, TB R9D
WINNIE DAVIS – (after 1924), TB
WYOMISSING – 1909, TB 20″ M R9L, Standards creamy white; suffused soft rose; Falls deep rose at the base, shading to a flesh colored border, a most beautiful variety.