Notable Irisarians: The Biography of W.R. Dykes

The Biography of W.R. Dykes
From the British Iris Society Annual, June 1926

William Rickatson Dykes, M.A; L.-es L., V.M.H. the second son of Alfred Dykes was born November 4, 1877. He was a botanist, horticulturist, schoolmaster, plant breeder, author, and the foremost authority on Irises. He first went to City of London School, and then to Wadham College, Oxford. There he took honors in classical schools. Later at the University of Paris he was L-esL.

While studying at Cambridge he met Sir Michael Foster, and through him became interested in the study of the iris family. He was an apt pupil and Sir Michael was a qualified teacher. He visited Sir Michael at Shelford, and carried on his work with increasing impetus and interest. It has been generally written that Sir Michael left Mr. Dykes his material on iris. But in the introduction to “The genus Iris”, Mr. Dykes says “My greatest debt of all is due to the late Sir Michael Foster, who encouraged me to undertake the investigation into the whole genus. My acquaintance with him was all too short, but it was long enough to make me appreciate that generosity with which he placed his knowledge and his plants at the disposal of those who followed In his footsteps. At his death there passed into the hands of Miss Willmott of Warley Place about a dozen rough notebooks, containing accounts of some of the Irises that flowered In his garden at Shelford and illustrated by accurate pencil drawings of the flowars. These notebooks have been most kindly lent me by Miss Willmott, and I owe much to the insight into Foster’s methods which I have derived from the perusal of then. Here and there…The notes have given unexpected help in clearing up difficulties… Except in a few cases of this sort, Foster’s notebooks have been of little direct value for the reasons already explained, but I have endeavored to acknowledge my debt whenever I have derived any information from them.”

So valuable as the Foster notebooks were In part, it was comparatively small in amount to the material which Mr. Dykes himself collected. He became the world’s leading authority on iris, and was a worthy successor to Sir Michael.

His insatiable curiosity led him to obtain a wide knowledge of many other plants, but his chief interest was In the lily, Iris, and amaryllis natural orders. He also did much work with tulips, and his knowledge of them was comparable to his knowledge of iris.

For over 16 years, from 1903 to 1919, he served as master in a boys’ school at Charterhouse, one of the largest and best known of the English schools. Here, busy with school routines and handicapped by a modest income, he carried on his study of irises, and won world-wide recognition. He was also a very successful and clever gardener, growing many rare species and plants to perfection under conditions that were far from ideal. His garden at Godalming was on high ground with sandy soil. He had a special insight into his flowers’ requirements and knew how to provide what they needed. In A.I.S. Bulletin 19 an article is reprinted from “The Book of Arrangements” published by the Royal Horticultural Society In 1926. Concerning Mr, Dykes, it says, “First and foremost, William Dykes was his own gardener. To collect the seed himself and to bring the plant safely through the cycle of its life to seed-time again was his great joy. To his first love, the genus iris he was always true, but he loved all plants and could appreciate the florists’ flower juat as well as some rare or new species.”

In the same Bulletin in an article, “The Late W.R. Dykes” R.W, Wallace wrote, “His ambition was to collect seeds, either when on a journey or by correspondence wherever Irises grow, raise the plants, and study them closely from the seedling stage until they grew, flowered, and seeded again. He could tell off-hand minor differences between species as to shape of seed or seed pods, and whether the foliage was round, ribbed, or flat. He could discourse at length on the history of every species, and the habitat of all known irises. He obtained seed of the true Iris Filifolia from Spain. He visited Dalmatica and Austria at Easter time, where he saw all the various types of Iris pumila in flower, and aphylla, varlegata, etc. He made the trip in the interests of a well known horticulturist who was very keen on species and nothing else. Dykes solved several problems for him. At one iris meeting he talked about iris species all around the world speaking entirely without notes. He told little facts relating to one or other of the species, clearly showing his deep and intimate knowledge of his subject.”

In 1920, Mr. Dykes was appointed to the Secretaryship of the Royal Horticultural Society, and it was necessary for him to leave Godalming and live nearer London. He had to give up his garden, and made arrangements for nearly all of his collection to be moved to Percy Murrell’s Nursery at Orpington In Kent. He retained only a few rhizomes each of some seedlings, planting them on a small plot of ground at the John Innes Research Station at Merton, Surrey. From the Gardeners’ Chronicle. Vol. 68, August 14, 1920, the following Is taken concerning the sale of some of Mr. Dykes’ collection, “Irises brought together by Mr. W.R. Dykes at Godalraing. Mr. Dykes taking up residence nearer London and unable to secure a suitable garden for his iris collection consequently must dispose of mest of his plants. Will retain his new hybrids and his unflowered seedlings.”

It is thought that at Merton, He was not perhaps so happy although the authorities were very kind to him. But he felt the ground was John Innes’ and not his own. In 1924 he married Katherine, who also made a name for herself as an iris hybridizer. It was a happy marriage, and they had their own garden at button Green near Guilford. His garden was his greatest joy. Here he planted over 30,000 tulip bulbs. Every spare minute he had was given to working out plans for his new garden. About this, Lesley Lyttleton Chubb wrote, “Always an early riser he was to be seen every morning in the garden, number book in hand. So matter what the weather might be, there was always something which had to be attended to or looked up. The breakfast bell would call appealingly to deaf-ears, and he would stroll in smiling and be surprised to see the lateness of the hour.”

Mr. Dykes served as Secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society from 1921 to 1925. He devoted his remarkable abilities whole-heartedly to the maintenance of the Society as a moving force in horticulture. He gave unsparingly of his high abilities and characteristic energy. In an article in A.I.S. Bulletin 19, taken from the “Book of Arrangements, published by the R.H.S. in 1926, it says, “… he placed his great knowledge of plants unreservedly at the service of the Fellows of the Society and other lovers of gardening who were genuinely seeking information. All the details of the Society’s great shews at Chelsea, at Holland Park, and at Vinvent Square were his personal care; during the last six months he devoted infinite pains to the plans and drawings for the new hall of the Society.”

w.r. dykes - the genus iris
The Genus Iris, by Wiliam Rickatson Dykes, Cambridge University Press, 1913.
Reprinted by Dover Publications, 1974. View the color plates from this book here.

Honors were bestowed upon him. He was awarded the Veitch Memorial Medal for his monograph “The Genus Iris” in 1924, and the Victoria Medal of Honor in November, 1925. But not all his botanical theories were accepted as facts in his time, and in some instances he has been proven wrong. But in most cases he was right. Jean Stevens in “The Iris and its Culture” says, “Dykes considered flavissima had many features in common with the small regella iris. But this was determined to be true until the 1930’s.” No detail was too minute to escape him. As an example Mr. Dykes drew attention to the fact that water-loving irises have tiny black spots in the leaves, and are visible by holdirg the leaf against a strong light. In the leaves of pseudecorus these black spots are readily discernible.”

W.R. Dykes was also a prolific author. In 1909 he began to plan and work on his monograph, “The Genus Iris”. He worked on it for 5 years. In a long drawer he kept hundreds of cards arranged in alphabetical order On each of these was detailed history of an iris which he had collected and grown, and from these cards he wrote his book. Of this monograph has been written, “This great monograph is a fitting tribute to our common Master’s (Foster’s) memory. As Mr. Dykes himself would be the first to allow, such a book could not have been attempted without the labour’s of the leader to whose memory it is dedicated.”

w.r. dykes - irises
Irises, Present Day Gardening, W. Rickatson Dykes, Ballantine, Hanson & Company, 1911.

He also wrote articles for the ”Gardener’s Chronicle” and other publications. In 1911 he published “Irises” written during a long weekend. In 1924 he published “The Handbook of Garden Irises”. In the preface to this book Mr. Dykes wrote, “The present volume is intended for gardeners, though it is hoped that the information as to the distribution of the various species, the speculations as to their affinities and the botanical details will prove no less welcome than the hints as to their cultivation, which are the results of an experience of some twenty years.” In the A.I.S. Bulletin 19, Percy Murrell says of this book, … is a model of what a book should be – full of accurate information and reliable cultural instruction based upon practical knowledge and experience.”

He carried on correspondence with many botanists and gardeners, including Grace Sturtevant. He also translated from the French, Professor Lorette’s book on pruning fruit trees, and at the time of his death was working with Mr. R.C. Notcutt in writing a popular book on flowering shrubs.

In A.I.S. Bulletin 19, Mr. A.J. Bliss wrote of him, “He was insatiable for information of every sort about Iris, and his correspondence must have been enormous. His energy was amazing, no less than his patience in working out a classification tangle, but I was most of all impressed by his thoroughness. He was never satisfied with hearsay or second-hand information. His aim was to see every species in its living state, and if possible to grow it from seed, not only to see what range of variation it might display, but also to experiment in cross-fertilization with other species for indications of affinity, and so far as it was possble, he carried out this ideal for “The Genus Iris.”

Much has been written about the character of Mr. Dykes. The following quotations are taken from A.I.S. Bulletin 19, published in April 1926, as a memorial to Mr, Dykes, Percy Murrel wrote “… whose outstanding virtues were his transparent sincerity, honesty of purpose, and enthusiasm in all he did. W.R. Dykes was a typical Englishman, rather reserved with strangers, and one who certainly did not suffer fools gladly. A hard worker, modest to a fault regarding his own achievements, he was always delighted to place his knowledge and experience freely at the service of those who sought his advice and assistance. Many years of his life were spent among boys at Charterhouse, and those of us who were fortunate to be admitted to the privilege of his friendship will probably recall him best as a man who was in all essentials a great-hearted lovable boy, possessed of a keenly developed sense of humour, a witty and interesting companion, with a joyous appreciation of the simple pleasures of life. We shall remember him with real affection, and a poignant regret that he should have been taken from us so soon and under such sad circumstances.”

From a short article headed “Various notes” are the lines, “One can imagine the eagerness with which he hurries to his garden plots, the welcome with which he greets a new acquisition as the deserved reward of a long seeking in correspondence with far-flung friends, the anticipation that marks the plans for a visit to Sir Michael Foster or for a prospecting trip in new fields. Painstaking care was required for such work as his and yet It was with a sort of boyish enthusiasm that he would talk and write on irises. His was the inquiring type of mind, always seeking, never quite satisfied perhaps… in his many letters one can appreciate his delight in coming upon some new or odd bit of information… It was not in his nature to think that the work on irises would ever be complete.” Murrell also wrote, “A new joke was almost as a great a joy to him as a new iris.”

In AIS Bulletin 7, there is an account written by Mr, Wister about his European visits in 1922. In company with Mr. Wallace, Mr. Bonnewitz, Mr. Wassenberg, and Mr. Dykes he visited the Cayeux Nursery. About their return journey to Paris he wrote, “The ride back to Paris was long and hot and we at once began to argue as to where we should have luncheon, for meals in France are important ceremonial occasions and not to be snatched at a quick lunch counter. Mr. Dykes who knows Paris very well said he would take us to a good restaurant that was cheap and we got off at the end of the car line at the Hotel de Ville and proceeded to walk. We proceeded under a system of turning to the left at the first corner and to the right at the next one. Mr. Dykes promised each time that it was just around the corner. Mr. Wallace afterwards described the trip as the long- est walk he had ever taken in his life, but finally we did end up at the restaurant where we had a most excellent meal.”

iris wedgewoodFuther on in the article he wrote that he talked to Mr. Dykes about Goldcrest and Richard II, saying he “discussed Iris breeding and talked freely about the future development of Iris.” He saw a large number of Dykes’ seedlings at Orpington, shown to him by Mr. Murrell. He said, “most of them under number and some of them exceedingly fine. The only named ones I noted I had seen before at Chelsea, They were Sapphire, an earlier Goldcrest, Cretan aid Ariadne.

Pesel and Spender in “Iris Cultivation for Amateurs” tell about Mr. Dykes telling a group of people that it was easy to have an iris bloom on every day of the year. To the disbelievers he gave short answers. They wrote, “Dykes when he was sure of his facts, as he nearly always was about Irises, had a pretty short way with incredulity, or with credulity for that matter.”

In the Dykes Memorial issue of the Annual of the Iris Society, June 1926, Marion Cran wrote, “He was to be seen at all the shows, the small fortnightly shows at Vincent Square and the great summer and autumn shows at Chelsea and Holland Park. His broad, burly frame moved In a leisurely way among the exhibits. He might be smiling just broadly like a merry schoolboy, or cross as Good Friday’s bun just as the moment might take him; for he was a man of strong personality who made no attempt to disguise his emotions.

Some people thought him irascible and difficult; but my own memories are those of great kindness and much sympathetic help. We would spar from time to time when he had occasion to become the botanist arguing with impenitent ignorance, or worse still, when de detected signs in me of a roving vision given rather to searching for the sentiment and story behind a flower than to a microscopic study and record of detail and anatomy. But we always ended laughing; and whan it came to matters of serious help there was no limit to his patience, his sense and courage.”

In describing a group of friends watching Mr. Dykes as he was about to plant an iris and noticing he was being watched, Marion Cran wrote, “Flushing and cross, all hot and bothered again in a moment, he scrabbled a hasty hole in the ground and ‘heeled’ his treasure in. We followed once more, rather chidden, as if we had been found invading an intimacy. Back among the blooms he was again the laughing radiant creator. But that glimpse of the man, shy and sensitive, was to me an illumination which has never passed.”
iris w.r. dykes
On December 1, 1925, W.R. Dykes died in a hospital following a motor accident. His work had only begun, for he was on the threshold of greater achievements as demonstrated by his glorious yellow seedling which was named for him. His death was a shock and a Ioss to the entire world of gardeners. But his name has become a household word, for at a meeting of the British Iris Society held on June 16, 1926 it was resolved to award a medal to the hybridizer of the outstanding iris variety of each year in memory of Mr, Dykes, thus the Dykes Medal has become the highly coveted, highly prized award dreamed of by all hybridizers. It is the highest award in Irlsdom, and its name, Dykes Medal, keeps his name alive and warm in all our hearts.

[Please see corresponding gallery photos for credit and full varietal information.]
[Note: I’ve reproduced the underlined text as it appears in the W.R. Dykes chronicle. It may or may not be accurate as to proper biblio citation.]

The Irises Hybridized by W.R. Dykes
Amber, 1924
Aphrodite, 1922
Aquamarine, 1923
Ariadne, 1921
Brilliant, 1924
Caucasian, 1921
Charmian, 1923
Cymbaline, 1923
Gold Crest, 1914
Harmony, 1923
Kurdistan, 1922
Lulworth, 1923
Lustre, 1925
Moonlight, 1923
Octavia, 1923
Pedro, 1922
Peerless, 1924
Perdita, 1923
Pinafore, pre-1927
Pyramus, 1923
Richard II, 1914
Ruby, 1922
Safrano, 1922
Sapphire, 1922
Silver Mist, 1921
Simplicity, 1921
Srinager, 1922
Thisbe, 1923
Tiflis, 1922
Twilight, 1923
Veglia, 1923
Venetia, 1924
Wedgewood, 1923
W.R. Dykes, 1926