Reprint: Iris from New Zealand

The surprising story of a new chapter in iris breeding from the far-off Antipodes By Robert Schreiner, OR

Fortunate breaks in hybridizing rarely occur. But, at some time during experimentation, if the breeder keeps at it diligently enough, a mutation or break comes up which adds something distinctly new and exciting to the floral pattern.

Such an event took place twelve years ago in the tiny iris garden of Mrs. Jean Stevens, far down in the Antipodes below Capricorn in Wanganui, New Zealand. At that time the first white and yellow bicolor flowered. This started an entirely new color pattern in iris which is now ready for circulation.

The story of the development of this brilliant group of iris is really the story of Mrs. Stevens. More than 5,000 miles from her nearest contemporary breeder she carried on her 14-year program alone, until she finally won over her shrub-growing husband.

For parent material Mrs. Stevens used early iris importations from England, including the varieties put on the market by W. R. Dykes of Cambridge. These were obtained in the early 1920’s, about the same time American growers began importing improved strains from England and France to our gardens here.

iris pinnacle

Pinnacle, Stevens 1945

This first white and yellow bicolor, Pinnacle, which gave the suggestion of a new color pattern, was the result of crossing Moonlight, a seedling from W. R. Dykes, and the Dominion family created by A. J. Bliss, also of England. Pure yellow iris would have been nothing new, nor would pure white, but the combination of pure white standards and yellow falls proved exciting.

At first Mrs. Stevens had difficulty in getting her crosses to set seed, and in getting the seed to germinate. Finally, though, after three generations of work spanning nine years, Pinnacle appeared in all its glory. This justified Mrs. Stevens’ efforts for here was an iris with pure white standards and primrose yellow falls.

Pinnacle was praised in the American Iris Society Bulletin and the Yearbook of the Iris Society of England, and Harold Knowlton, Massachusetts attorney and an authority on iris, declared it to be outstanding in values over all iris viewed during a 5000 mile trip over the United States.

But this was only one; other exciting mutations were developed in the New Zealand garden. Mrs. Stevens’ Moonlight Sonata is a delicate lime yellow, a register limited in the flower world. Perfection of a series of blends in which several colors appear was accomplished in Watchfire, Cleopatra and Caribbean Treasure, all new blooms from south of Capricorn. Another fine family of iris blends stems from her early variety Polynesia.

iris paragon

Paragon, Stevens 1947

Challenge, in the rose shades, and Paragon in the light mallow pink register are also representative of Mrs. Stevens’ persistence. If the grower enjoys deeper colors she offers Italian Joy, a rich claret, and the new Black Belle, a ruffly indigo. In contrast to these dark tones she developed the lovely soft cream colored Airy Grace.

Her latest promise is a new strain of iris that will have pure white standards and light blue falls – the same depth of blue as the Great Lakes. Thus, variety of coloring is being added to the iris family in the tiny garden at Wanganui. Transporting plants from one hemisphere to another is always heightened with anxiety for it is like plunging a plant from June weather to December weather. Generally it takes 18 months for the plants to become oriented and adjust their blooming to our seasons.

~ Reprinted from Flower Grower magazine, August, 1950.