Phil Edinger, California
When you consider the totality of irises recorded in the 1939 and 1949 Check Lists, you realize just how few from that number we’ve managed to preserve. When you consider importance, though, the picture changes for the better. Of the significant output from the first half of the last century, many of the key parents and a good number of the popular varieties are “in captivity” and in circulation once again.
And yet…a few belles of yesteryear remain elusive. After this passage of time are they truly extinct or do they exist somewhere awaiting rediscovery? The older the iris, the greater chance it has moved to the ranks of unknown/unidentified, hanging on (if we’re lucky) in old gardens, in rural or isolated communities, or “gone wild” along country roadways. The varieties from the 1940s offer a better chance of rediscovery with names attached.
The following roster, arranged from oldest to most recent, is a misssing-person alert for all traveling-trowel HIPS members. Be on the lookout — and be bold!
Oriflamme (Vilmorin 1904). A violet bitone best described as a puffed-up germanica: big flower, indifferent form, and standards that tended to flop. Nevertheless, it was a key tetraploid parent (it lurks behind most California blues) and was catalogued for years.
Miss Willmott (M. Foster 1910). A tinted white with very flaring falls and amazingly “modern” form. With Kashmir White, it was one of the first two tetraploid “dominant whites” worth preserving for that fact as well as for its beauty. Odds are that it no longer exists, unless in a collection somewhere in England; it was not a powerhouse grower and it suffered in cold-winter climates.
Mme. Durrand (Denis 1912). The start of modern brown irises, this combined “iridescent buff” standards with buff-bordered lilac falls — a pastel version of the much later Evolution. Stems were notably tall and well-branched; the Ricardi parentage rendered it tender in coldwinter regions.
Lady Foster (M. Foster 1913). Caterina’s prettier sister, she featured the same colors (blue standards, darker lavender falls, gold haft veins) but a smoother finish and a bit more style to the flower. Tall, excellently branched stems lacked the typical Caterina bend and twist.
Magnifica (Vilmorin 1919). A whopping big flower of “up-and-down” shape and floppy standards — a bitone in light violet blue and red-violet. It had something of a run as a parent — appearing behind Copper Lustre, Junaluska, Inspiration, and Salar, for example — but its chief claim to fame is its chromosome count (60-62), making it one of only three known pentaploids. It was catalogued into the early 1960s.
Ballerine (Vilmorin 1910). An esteemed garden iris with a reputation for good growth without fussing. Stems were to 4 feet or better, bearing really large, elongated, wavy-petaled blossoms in two slightly contrasting shades of dulled light to medium violet-blue.
Rajput (Sturtcvant 1922). Here is another garden favorite, Miss Sturtevant’s entry into the Big Blue competition dominated by California breeders. Slender four-foot stems carried flaring-fall blossoms universally described as “luminous heliotrope” with a peculiar glistening finish akin to that of her Queen Caterina.
Mme. Cecile Bouscant (Millet 1923). Here is the spiritual precursor to the tetraploid orchid pinks Harriet Thoreau and Dreamcastle that appeared twenty years later. The color was variously described as orchid pink, rosy mauve, or violet rose, the falls having a blue flush below the beard which was orange tipped in blue to match the style arms. Graceful flowers appeared on stems four feet high or better. In the procession to modern irises, it made one significant mark as grandparent to Dr. Kleinsorge’s widely used Far West.
Souv. de Loetitia Michaud (Millet 1923). “The incomparable Souv. de Loetitia Michaud” was one catalog description, and the sentiment was shared by other catalogers and the gardening public. Tall stems carried flowers of lobelia or periwinkle blue, paling slightly at petal margins, the hafts conspicuously marked by wide-spaced veins in old gold on either side of a yellow beard. Form was particularly modern with wide hafts and shorter-broader segments. Though it was grown everywhere, it was a bit tender in cold-winter regions. The most promising area of search should be from Texas through the South to the mid-Atlantic region; the west coast states were busy producing their own large, tall “blues.”Dr. Chobaut (Denis 1925). A solid medium blue color was presented in flowers with a stylish horizontal flare to the falls — literally a standout among its contemporaries. Like Magnifica (above) this is a pentaploid (63 chromosomes), a curiosity that kept it around long after it had been eclipsed by newer blues. It was cataloged as recently as the late 1950s and is known to still exist in England.
Claridad (Mohr-Mitchell 1926). An anomaly among the big and tall California blues, this was a modest-size flower on stems no more than 2 1/2 feet high. What made it special was the color: clear, medium-light blue of a peculiar clarity (hence the name) presented in a flower with crisply flaring falls. As recently as ten years ago, Bob Schrcincr singled this out as one to re-discover because of its unusual color, “the closest to true blue of any iris in the garden” (Carl Salbach, 1927).
Ensorceleur (F. Caycux 1926). No great beauty, this, but it’s significant. With Los Angeles and San Francisco, this is a contender for first tetraploid plicata (though the Californians were introduced a year later, it all depends on which one flowered first). This French contender, though, was entirely different in all respects. Where the Californians were tall, shapely, and lightly marked blue on a white background, this was a large, dumpy flower on stems that barely topped the foliage, the violet-blue color applied in an overall pattern now known as luminata plicata — a pattern it passed along to its well known descendants Ariane, Florentine, and Madame Louis Aureau. It was grown by a few hybridizers as late as the 1950s and existed as recently as 1970 in a large collection of historical irises where it was noted by AIS Convention visitors.
Blue Velvet (Loomis 1919). Among the small flood of Dominion children, this was the premier U.S. entry in the field — so esteemed, in fact, that it nearly captured a Dykes Medal. In color it mimicked Dominion in its blue standards, velvety purple falls with orange beards (but a bit more haft marking). From its other parent, Mohr’s Balboa, it gained more height and better branching. Even the plant was Dominion-esque, with large fans of broad, twisted-tip foliage.
Ethiop Queen (R. Schreincr 1938). The Schrciner catalog photo shows an elegantly smooth flower in silk and velvet with conic standards and oval falls — taken from low enough an angle to hide the few haft marks that marred the perfect darkness. The “deepest black purple” of the standards hovered over falls that, like “the color of black pansies,” appear black due to the velvet. Beards were bronze and blue. Evidently it wasn’t an outstanding performer — but — it proved an outstanding parent for dark-to-black flowers: Black Forest, Envoy, Ebony Isle, as well as various key Schreiner seedlings.
Storm King (Nicholls 1940). Another significant stepping-stone in “black” development, this was handicapped only by slow growth; and in hot climates, its lateness led to cooked blossoms. In the garden it was unmistakable: nearly four feet tall and intensely purple-black with a stylish, flaring form that was almost sinister (a legaey from its parent Mata Hari, which would be a good find as well). Its style, color depth, and utter smoothness gave it a notable place in development of subsequent “black” flowers.
Golden Eagle (D. Hall 1942). A recently recovered “unknown” is a contender for this name, but surely this must exist somewhere with its identification attached. Although its real claim to fame is as a parent of tangerine bearded pinks, it was a striking garden iris in bright, unshaded, light to medium yellow. On tall stems appeared flaring flowers of a particular clarity and intensity, the standards tending to flop a bit (the Prairie Sunset influence).
Tobacco Road (Kleinsorge 1943).The sensational brown, of which Jean Cayeux foretold. Conic standards, broad and flaring falls, in a medium-size flower on average-height stems with especially fine branching. This may or may not be in collections; my last plant departed only three years ago (you don’t turn your back on this one and expect survival!). One diagnostic key is the intensely purple-based foliage; the other is the flower itself, with its even tobaccoleaf golden brown color.
Garden Glory (Whiting 1943). Not large, not tall, and not especially broad-petaled, this one sold itself with its totally smooth “bordeaux red” color, complemented by brownish beards. In a way, this was the red equivalent of Black Forest: short and modest-sized but elegant – and a potent parent.
Dream Girl, Overture, Premier Peach (D. Hall 1944,1944,1946). All the other named tangerine-bearded pink “breaks” have been preserved — Goldfish, Seashell, Melitza, Buffawn, Flora Zenor — but of Dave Hall’s original four, only Fantasy is still in circulation. It would be a shame if these three were to vanish; all original occurrences in the Hall opus should be preserved for historical significance alone. And as building blocks in pink development, they also merit preservation; Overture, in particular, was a widely-used parent, but the other two also appear in ancestries of later developments. Nothing is harder to identify than old tangerine pinks (so many were so similar); try to find these with their names firmly attached.
Snow Crystal (Wills 1947). Charm and delicacy distinguish this barely-marked plicata. The lightly ruffled, crisply flaring flower appears white from a short distance; only at close range do you appreciate the blue-markings on hafts and standard bases and the blue style arms and crests. Think of it as an updated Los Angeles. Not only was this a lovely garden flower, it proved a valuable ancestor through its children Belle Meade and Lela Dixon.