by Tom W. Dillard, AR
New Zealanders figure prominently in the history of iris culture, exhibition, education and breeding. Many Kiwis, such as Jean Stevens, are well known; however, few people today recognize the name Sam Rix nor the irises he developed. While his iris interests ranged far and wide, Rix’s contribution to the world of Louisiana irises is particularly noteworthy.
The term “Louisiana iris” is a popular name for the five species of “water irises” native to the lower Mississippi Valley in the United States. Officially known as the Hexagonae series, this grouping contains these five species: I. fulva, I. giganticaerulea, I. brevicaulis, I. nelsonii, and I. hexagona–the species after which the series is named. It is from these five species that the modern hybrids have been bred.
From the earliest years the irises within the Hexagonae series have appealed to iris fanciers around the world. The eminent English iris authority William R. Dykes himself produced at least two hybrids, and even citizens of the southern hemisphere found that Louisianas are quite adaptable.
Residents of Australia and New Zealand encountered huge obstacles in building collections capable of sustaining breeding programs, but they did it nonetheless. No one represents this phenomenon better than Sam E. Rix of Mount Maunganui, North Island, New Zealand.
Rix, proprietor of the Hotel Oceanside in Mount Maunganui, first began communicating with the Society for Louisiana Irises in 1952. By that point he had already built a large collection of species irises, including the Hexagonae. Within two years this diligent and persistent Kiwi had assembled a vastly expanded collection, thanks to Royce D. Spinkston, a South Australia fancier of Louisiana irises who had sent seeds. He also received seeds from Inez Conger, Caroline Dorman, and W. B. MacMillan, all from the American state of Louisiana and early leaders in efforts to introduce these wild species into gardens–and into breeding programs. “At the moment I have some hundreds of fine seedlings, and those from the first germination are now huge plants, and are about to flower,” Rix proudly announced in 1952.
But the best news, Rix reported, was the arrival of a shipment of named cultivars from the Congers in Louisiana. The names fairly spring from his typewritten letter: ‘Royal Gem,’ ‘The Khan,’ ‘Bayou Glory,’ ‘Just Kate,’ ‘Sara Gladney,’ and many more. He continued: “In a month or so I hope to see the first blooms on plants like ‘Caroginia,’ ‘Peggy Mac,’ ‘New Orleans,’ ‘Dixie Deb,’ ‘Elizabeth the Queen,” and many others.” He was eager to share further news with his international peers:
“I plan to breed these plants on a large scale, and within a year or so hope to have many thousands of seedlings coming in bloom each spring. For a number of years I have been deeply interested in iris species, and have grown the rather difficult oncocyclus and regelio-cyclus hybrids in large numbers, together with many other types. I have had to work under difficulties in a very exposed position, for our hotel is right on the sand dunes, facing the Pacific Ocean. Storms sweep in from the sea, and have frequently scorched many of my plants badly. I have noticed though, that the Louisiana irises have withstood salt spray very well. I have been studying genetics, in the hope that more knowledge may make it possible for me to produce something worthwhile in years to come.”
Amazingly, Rix was able to produce quality irises quite quickly. In 1957 he registered two Louisianas, ‘Billie Louise’ and ‘Frances Elizabeth,’ and the following year came ‘Petunia Butterfly.’ Twenty years later, in 1978, he registered ‘Louise Rix.’ The parentage of these cultivars is unknown, indicating that Rix probably developed his breeding stock from the seeds mentioned above. (We know this was the case with ‘Billie Louise’ for Rix mentioned in the registration papers that it came from “Conger seeds.”)
Rix’s irises were well received by the public and accredited judges. Three of his four registered Louisiana cultivars won awards. ‘Petunia Butterfly’ and ‘Louise Rix’ both won HM awards from the American Iris Society, but it was ‘Frances Elizabeth’ that took the grand prize.
In 1961 he received an Honorable Mention from the American Iris Society for ‘Frances Elizabeth.’ By 1963 it was runner-up for the DeBaillon Award, and two years later ‘Frances Elizabeth’ won the coveted DeBaillon, essentially the highest award given for Louisiana irises. ‘Frances Elizabeth’ is the only non-American iris to win the DeBaillon.
In 1998 Sam Rix died but no obituary was published. His irises, including the DeBaillon winning ‘Frances Elizabeth,’ were lost to commerce, at least in the United States. Fortunately, this iris has been grown in New Zealand, and it has been reintroduced into the U.S. where it will once again be available. This beautiful iris will serve as a memorial to the determined New Zealander who bred it.
(Since this article was written the Mary Swords DeBaillon Award has gone twice more to non-US bred Louisiana irises. In 2004 it was awarded to ‘Hot and Spicy’ and in 2006 to ‘Peaches in Wine’, both bred by Heather Pryor of Australia. – Stephanie Boot, New Zealand)