Notable Irisarians: Sir Michael Foster

By Laetitia Munro, NJ


A physician by trade, Sir Michael Foster was born March 8th, 1836 into a family of fervent nonconformity. Later in life he was elected first Professor of Physiology at Trinity College, Cambridge University. At one time he was a member of Parliament as the University representative. From all accounts he was a well respected leader in his profession. But history will remember Sir Michael for his hobby, his botanical contributions to the world of the iris perhaps more than anything else.

Sir Michael was both a collector and a breeder of iris. He did not travel himself, but cultivated friendships with travelers, who sent him specimens of iris from all over the world. He frequently credits American missionaries for sending him specimens from Asia Minor and the East.

He built his house 4 miles from Cambridge, on a chalk slope with poor soil, which he called Nine Wells. Its relative dryness enabled him to cultivate many iris which require arid conditions. His garden was composed of a multitude of iris, (as well as daffodils, anemones, and many other plants). It seems as if he was trying to grow almost every species of wild or collected iris known, including the difficult oncocyclus from Asia Minor and Armenia, regelia from Russia (named in honor if his friend and contemporary Dr. Regel of St Petersburg), native American iris, and of course many pogoniris. The one iris he admitted he could not grow was the kaempferi (Japanese); no matter how hard he tried to keep them moist it was impossible, he admits, to keep them alive. Visitors to Foster’s garden frequently came away with a bag full of unusual iris rhizomes, encouraged to grow them under different conditions and to cross them with other iris.

iris caterinaCaterina, 1909

He began his hybridization experiments in the 1880’s, with the common diploids pallida x variegata. He replicated the common known bearded forms of neglecta and amoena, providing proof that these were not species of themselves but natural hybrids. MRS HORACE DARWIN was one such result of this kind of cross which was later introduced into commerce. He liked to name his creations after his women friends, such as MRS. GEORGE DARWIN, MRS. ALAN GREY (cengialti x QUEEN of MAY), MISS WILMOTT, and CATERINA (the Queen of Cyprus).

Foster reduced to 3 the number of ‘species’ from which all tall garden bearded iris are derived: pallida, variegata and sambucina. Dykes later said SAMBUCINA should be cut from the list, but added Cengialti as distinguished from pallida.

Foster’s greatest contribution was in the introduction of tetraploid iris ‘blood’ into the modern tall bearded iris. He is one of the first, if not the first, to bring tetraploid iris to England. A few are AMAS from Amasia, Turkey, which was stout and large flowered albeit somewhat floppy, collected in 1885. I. trojana from Troad, (sometimes confused with I. cypriana) one of the first iris Foster had brought to England around 1885 had poor foliage, but beautiful branching qualities. I. cypriana (sometimes confused with I. trojana) from Cyprus in 1888, with large rather heavy flowers of a rich reddish purple, and Macrantha which is a form of AMAS and the parent of DOMINION.

He saw that these iris could be crossed with the small flowered diploid pallida and variegata iris which were the garden variety bearded iris of the time. While there were many failures, and many sterile crosses, there were also a number of successes. The results of such crosses had the tetraploid number which gave them size, branching, and diversity advantage over the existing diploid garden iris. While many of the Asian ‘wild’ collected iris did not do well in damper and colder Europe, their progeny were more vigorous, thriving in England without a great deal of care. Foster himself introduced very few of his creations, and others were introduced after his death. But these few iris are repeatedly found in the ancestry of almost all our modern Tall Bearded iris.

The cross of what is commonly believed to be pallida dalmatica and a tender specimen collected from Persia in 1877, I. Kashmiriana, (or a form of I. mesopotamica) produced two outstanding iris: KASHMIR WHITE, and MISS WILLMOTT. These represented a vast improvement in white iris. While KASHMIR WHITE was somewhat tender, it was able to impart its size and beauty to its hardy offspring. It is believed that KW also was an ancestor of SNOW FLURRY. KW bred back to I. mesopotamica produced SANTA BARBARA, pod parent of Dykes Medal winnter SIERRA BLUE. Another important progeny of KW was ICEBERG, which played a different role in the evolution of tall bearded iris. ICEBERG was the parent of PRESIDENT PILKINGTON, the parent of FAR WEST, a foundation block of Dr. Kleinsorge’s work.

Both Foster’s KASHMIR WHITE and its sister MISS WILMOTT contributed to the development of a whole new class of modern haftless amoenas with broad falls thru WHOLE CLOTH. The light blue CAHOKIA, the pod parent, carries multiple instances of KASHMIR WHITE in its ancestry. While on the pollen side, MISS WILMOTT is the ancestor of another clear light blue SHINING WATERS (which also counted CATERINA in its ancestry), which is the pollen parent of PROGENITOR, important ancestor of WHOLE CLOTH.

Foster liked to cross Cypriana (which was very difficult to keep alive in Europe) with pallida. From this cross he produced CATERINA (1909), which is one of his most famous creations. It is impossible to overestimate the influence of CATERINA on the development of modern tall bearded iris. It was the ‘other’ parent of ARGENTINA, ancestor of above mentioned SNOW FLURRY, but there were many other descendants of note: BALDWIN (parent of Dykes winner RAMESES), QUEEN CATERINA (grandparent of, Dykes Medalists HELEN McGREGOR and VIOLET HARMONY), and SHERBERT, the surprising result of CATERINA x MRS. HORACE DARWIN, (parent of both Dykes Medalist MARY GEDDES and GLOWING EMBERS).

Several other important iris came from Foster’s cypriana crosses: SHELFORD CHIEFTAIN (ancestor of famous reds, including DAUNTLESS), LADY FOSTER (another ancestor of WHOLE CLOTH) and the sweet scented CRUSADER (1913). CRUSADER is an important ancestor of deep clear blue iris, such as Dykes Medalists MISSOURI, BLUE RHYTHM and CHIVALRY, and is also found in the ancestry of WHOLE CLOTH. Then there is BLUE BOY (1913) of aphylla parentage, a short purplish blue self with a bluish beard. It too, figures in the ancestry of WHOLE CLOTH.

Grace Sturtevant attributes him as ‘practically the first’ to use cengialti, trojana and cypriana, among the bearded, and the first to combine pogoniris, regelia and oncocyclus iris. It was Sturtevant who took Foster’s MRS. HORACE DARWIN crossed with CATERINA to produce aforementioned SHERBERT, and also hybridzed QUEEN CATERINA, from Foster’s CATERINA.

His imports and early crosses were also used in French breeding. The Vilmorin Iris exhibit the large flowered influence of Amas. Yeld, friend and admirer, produced LORD of JUNE, a highly prized iris with AMAS as a parent. One of the most popular iris of the times, LENT A. WILLIAMSON has as its parent AMAS as well.

iris sir michael
Sir Michael, Yeld 1925
From Quality Gardens catalog for 1930

Foster had another great talent. He could inspire his contemporaries in ways that they too contributed greatly to the development and knowledge of the bearded iris. It was Caparne who first developed the intermediate bearded iris after Foster’s encouragement. When W.R. Dykes wrote his classic ‘The Genus Iris’ , he dedicated the book to the memory of Sir Michael, and credits him with discovery of many species and natural hybrids. Sir Arthur Hort hails Foster as the ‘pioneer and founder of the modern iris’. Perhaps Hort, his friend and admirer, named the famous iris SIR MICHAEL in his honor.

One of the most prestigous honors in the iris world, the Foster Memorial Plaque, is awarded yearly by the British Iris Society for exemplary service in the work of iris culture. Some outstanding recent recipients include: Robert Schreiner (1963), Dr. Currier McEwen (1978), Ben Hager (1981), Keith Keppel (1993), and Bennett Jones (1995).

Today Foster’s introductions are rarely seen. I don’t think Foster ever intended to develop commercial successes, but rather his scientific curiosity led him to innumerable species crosses, just to see what would happen. While some of the Foster iris have come and gone, CATERINA, CRUSADER, the DARWIN ladies, and perhaps a few others are still available from specialized historic iris sources, and continue to delight those who have chosen to add them to their collections.

[Please see corresponding gallery photos for credit and full varietal information.]