Notable Irisarians: Helen von Stein-Zeppelin

The Iris Countess
How one woman’s ingenious preservation effort led to an iris legacy for the world

By Cathy Egerer

On June 18, 1905, Helen von Zeppelin was born in Metz, in the Alsace-Lorraine region of what was then Germany. Her aristocratic father, Friedrich Graf von Zeppelin-Aschhausen, was the Lorraine district president and second cousin of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, inventor of the Zeppelin rigid airships. Helen and her brother enjoyed a comfortable upbringing in Metz. When Helen was six, her father was injured in a hunting accident and they moved to the family estate at Aschhausen Castle in Württemberg.

Helen was schooled at home and trained in music, languages and the domestic arts, as was traditional for high-born girls of the time. She soon proved to be quite a tomboy and spent her free time romping outdoors with her bow and arrow, pretending to be an Indian or a hunter. Her lifelong fascination with plants developed at an early age when she discovered the castle garden.

In 1914, the men of Aschhausen were called into military service, even the estate gardener. Nine-year-old Helen assumed the care of the castle gardens and planted the first irises there. In travels with her mother, she loved learning the botanical names of plants, and around 1926 Helen moved to Berlin to study horticulture.

The year 1926 was pivotal in Helen’s life. Her grandmother died and left her the Meierhof, a small winery in the village of Laufen some 400 miles to the south near the Austrian border. (See photo at left.)The property included a manor garden surrounding a greenhouse built partly into the ground. The surrounding hills were fertile and the slopes were well drained. It was an iris lover’s paradise – and it was hers.

For a while Helen commuted back and forth from Berlin to Laufen. She had met Sydney Jessen, a diplomat, while studying in Berlin and in 1927 they married. But by 1930 she had moved to Laufen on a permanent basis. The nearby St. Trudpert monastery had a field of grape vines, which she cultivated, and she started selling plants grown in the manor garden while building her iris collection.

Helen and Sydney welcomed two children, Iris and Hjul, and the business continued to grow. In the early years, Helen sold perennials, annuals, and vegetables at flower shows and markets all over the surrounding area. She made bouquets and wreaths for local hotels and expanded her iris plantings. In 1935, she was ready to offer her first catalog of 80 irises for sale. Her list reads like a Who’s Who of famous iris breeders, with introductions by Goos & Koenemann, Murrell, Foster, Perry, Sturtevant, Vilmorin, Bliss, and others.

By the late 1930s, Helen’s iris collection numbered 180 varieties, grown along with roses, dahlias, and other perennials. She also had a few carefully-selected iris seedlings of her own in development. Then came World War II, and if not for her ingenuity and a great deal of bravery, these magnificent early irises would have been lost forever. The order came down from the authorities: all ornamental plants were to be plowed under, and the fields used for prescribed plantings of vegetables and tobacco. No plants were to be spared.

Helen wasn’t about to give up her precious irises without a fight. She carefully saved a few rhizomes from each variety, and planted them where the authorities wouldn’t notice: in the house garden tucked among the vegetable plants, and nestled in cracks and crevices in the stone walls. Helen managed to “hide” all 180 irises. In the meantime, the Meierhof housed house prisoners of war and refugees. Sydney and Helen divorced in 1938, and in 1944 she married Wolfgang von Stein, a psychologist. Their daughter, Aglaja, arrived in 1946.

Much of Germany lay in ruins after the war, but Helen’s garden brought her great comfort. In her 1947 sale catalog she wrote in the Forward:

Here a piece of earth has remained undestroyed, despite multiple threats, and with it my iris collection… I have had to limit them again and again in order to get land for vegetables. That’s why my stocks of the individual varieties are also low. The main thing was always to preserve the collection with absolute varietal integrity, and at least I managed to do that. The joys of gardening are among the most delicate and purest… life has become so poor in external things that every joy is an important achievement.

Helen had continued her iris breeding efforts during the war, and in 1948 she offered her first irises for sale. ‘Prelude’ was one of them, and like most of her irises to follow, it was named in honor of her husband’s love of music. Wolfgang didn’t interfere with his wife’s iris operation, but he supported her efforts. ‘Bartok’, ‘Mozart’, ‘Nocturne’, ‘Ravel’, and ‘Liszt’ soon followed. ‘Missa Solemnis’ was named for a Beethoven composition, one that was said to be his personal favorite of all the music he wrote. She deviated once with ‘Aglaja von Stein’, named for their daughter. Only two of her creations – ‘Aglaja von Stein’ and ‘Scherzo’ – were registered with the AIS. In all, Helen brought 16 new irises into commerce. Her nickname “The Iris Countess” was well-deserved.

Helen’s iris horizons were expanding in other ways as well. She regularly corresponded with iris breeders in America, France, and England. Robert Schreiner was a good friend; Alan Bloom in England and the Cayeux family in France were also close colleagues. In Germany, Karl Foerster and Georg Arends often exchanged ideas with her. In 1956 Foerster sent one of his students to Laufen. Isbert Preussler was a master gardener who helped Helen expand the perennial nursery. In the 1960s Helen met Beth Chatto, who eagerly accepted her advice and friendship and eventually became one of Britain’s best-known gardeners.

Left: Helen, Mrs. Rholin Cooley, and Melba Hamblen in 1970 (from an AIS Bulletin)

Helen was also actively breeding daylilies, peonies, and Oriental poppies, many of which are still available today. She judged iris shows, helped found the International Hardy Plant Union, and made several trips to America. Helen also won a number of prestigious awards for her work, including the Georg Arends commemorative coin, the highest honor from the German Central Horticultural Association. It was quite a thrill considering their long association.

As the nursery expanded, so did Helen’s iris collection. She regularly imported irises from North America and other countries in Europe, with the result that by 1969, the collection numbered over 1,400, including Siberian and spuria irises. The iris collection demanded time, space and upkeep that was increasingly hard to provide. Helen reached out to the botanical garden in Basel-Brüglingen, Switzerland (now Merian Gärten) to ask if they would take the entire collection. The garden readily accepted and the collection was moved to Basel-Brülingen in its entirety. Today Merian Gärten holds one of the largest and finest historic iris collections in the world, with more than 1500 cultivars. (At right: a small part of the Merian Gärten collection)

Helen’s daughter Aglaja, now von Rumohr, took over the management of the von Zeppelin nursery in 1993. Aglaja’s experience as a bookseller guided efforts to improve the grounds and shop for visitors. Helen passed away in 1995 at the age of 90. Today Frederik von Rumohr, Helen’s grandson, manages the business – the third generation to do so. There are still irises growing on the sunny slopes in Laufen, as the nursery still manages several hundred cultivars. The Staudengärtnerei Gräfin von Zeppelin, or Countess von Zeppelin Perennial Nursery, is known around the world for the quality and variety of their plants. Today, half of their business is via mail-order.

The iris world owes a huge debt to Countess Helen von Stein-Zeppelin. The little girl roaming the estate grounds with her bow and arrow grew up to be a clever, courageous woman, and her devotion to her irises and determination to save them left a priceless legacy for us all to enjoy.

Countess von Zeppelin Perennial Nursery: (in German)

Our thanks to the Countess von Zeppelin Nursery, Merian Gärten, and the German National Library for source material and assistance.