Reprint: Irises Raised and Named by Arthur John Bliss (1932)

Notes by Ethel Anson S. Peckham


It would be no exaggeration to say that, of all iris breeders, Mr. Arthur John Bliss did as much to improve irises in our gardens as any other person who has hybridized and raised irises. Sir Michael Foster and Mr. W. R. Dykes did most for straightening out the tangles in botany and horticulture in this genus but their results in the line of hybridization, if compared with those of Mr. Bliss, were small when viewed from the horticultural side. One has to consider, of course, that Mr. Bliss put his time on the genetics of one section of irises and did not work over the whole genus as did Sir Michael and Mr. Dykes but it always seems to me as if Sir Michael Foster, Mr. Dykes and Mr. Bliss were the three greatest to date among those who have done anything in connection with the genus Iris. The cult had been encouraged by Mr. Barr and others and there was a certain amount of material to work with and, if we look over the older of Mr. Bliss’ originations, we will notice his breeding was done with such varieties as CORDELIA, LEONIDAS, MME. CHEREAU, PRINCESS BEATRICE, ASSUERUS, QUEEN OF MAY, TROSUPERBA, PACQUITA, JACQUESIANA, DALMATICA, FLAVESCENS, albicans, THORBECKE, MAORI KING arid others. We see by this, then, that he used a plant of practically every color-class then known in gardens and thus covered most of what might be in the heredity of color, at least, in bearded irises. Just glancing over the list of names I have given, the trained irisarian will see that a large range of other factors of heredity must be there for we have derivatives of several species of marked difference in habit.

iris betrandSometime before any varieties of Mr. Bliss’ were introduced to commerce the news was spreading that he had interesting improvements in garden irises and Mr. Robert W. Wallace writes in the Gardener’s Chronicle in 1929: “At the Wisley Trials in 1915 I noticed many outstanding new varieties of his (Mr. Bliss’s) raising and a year or so later I visited his garden and subsequently introduced many of his seedlings. It is a remarkable fact that, working on the lines only of the older forms, he had succeeded in introducing a large number of outstanding varieties, particularly DOMINION. This is his most noticeable seedling and it stood out from all others – an epoch making plant-stated to be a seedling from CORDELIA X AMAS (MACRANTHA), but so far in advance of its parents as to be a clear jump ahead. The remarkable quality of DOMINION was such that I described it as being the greatest Iris I bad even seen and, even then in 1917, at the hitherto unheard of price of five guineas, it was distributed widely, especially in America. A DOMINION cross produced BRUNO, CARDINAL, MAJESTIC, GLAMOUR, MOA, CONCHOBAR, etc., while another DOMINION cross produced TITAN, TENEBRAE, SWAZI and DUKE OF BEDFORD.” I think this will show what a revolution this was in the iris world of that time.

In 1917 DOMINION was introduced together with BENBOW, CLEMATIS, GULES, MORWELL, SYPHAX, DIMITY and KNYSNA. Of these irises we still need MORWELL and KNYSNA for they have qualities hard to surpass. DIMITY held its own to a very short time ago and is still in large collections of the better plicatas. At the time these irises were first brought out in 1917, naturally, most of the excitement was about DOMINION which received an Award of Merit but which was so markedly different in substance that the horticultural press was full of comments then and for several years after; in fact, if one includes writings on irises in America, it would spread well over a decade. Nearly everybody who had begun to breed irises realized he wanted that variety for a parent. There were such comments as “DOMINION, neglecta, par excellence”; “The much heralded DOMINION has substance of the fullest and, though my definition may differ, I appreciate that quality in Pallida Dalmatica and in the new American introduction SINDJKHAT”; “Here I saw the finest BLACK PRINCE I have ever seen. The people who have sneeringly said DOMINION is no better than BLACK PRINCE must have had flowers like this in mind, the flowers were equal to ordinary DOMINIONS, perhaps, but fine as they were, there was a big gap between them and DOMINION when at its best.” Mr. Bliss said his cross was CORDELIA X MACRANTHA and it is true that when he again purchased CORDELIA at a later date he said the plant did not seem to be the same as that he had used before but conjectures that he really used BLACK PRINCE are but conjectures like most of the talk that flies about when iris breeding is the subject. Anyhow, it probably did not matter as the same genes could perfectly well have been in either.

Comments on DIMITY in 1920 were that this variety needed to be seen in the garden to appreciate its real worth as it was remarkable for freedom and the branching a great improvement over older varieties among the plicatas. Air. Bliss “made the cross” (MME. CHEREAU X CORDELIA) X (MME. CHEREAU X QUEEN OF MAY) “With the idea of producing a paler plicata than MME. CIIEREAU or possibly a white. The result was about as hoped for but the especially fine veining in DIMITY was a quite unexpected feature” says Mr. E. H. Jenkins and adds that a good light color such as this is a welcome addition “amid clouds of blue, lavender and shades akin” In 1924 DIMITY was ” the largest plicata.”

KNYSNA is blessed with brilliant yellow standards and makes a fine spot of color in the garden and in 1922 we read “of other varieties with clear yellow standards and chestnut falls KNYSNA is unquestionably the best. The color throughout is extraordinarily clear and of remarkable carrying quality and the rich falls are of an unusual rounded form and stand out distinctly against the mass of clear yellow standards.”

iris clematisCLEMATIS caused much discussion because of its peculiar flat form and Mr. Bliss had to come to its defense as he was criticized for allowing it to be introduced. The color was a very clean, clear blue, much more a real blue than was the case in iris as known then and it made a good mass in the garden and so it had its defenders but the sticklers for a particular form in irises were irate and said it was a cripple in exactly the same manner as discussion raged over BRANDYWINE, some upholding it for its blueness, others damning it because of its bad habit of having extra parts and trying to “go double.” I do not mean that CLEMATIS had a doubling habit but the standards lying flat as they do gave an appearance not unlike the kaempferi hybrids we know as “Japanese” iris.

Of that first set of introductions BENBOW and MORWELL were the best of the blues, BENBOW being quite outstanding for a time. MORWELL has a finish to the domed flower that will make it bold its own even in the present as there is little in a short-statured iris in this medium bicolor blue section to match it. All these 1917 introductions received awards in 1916 or 1917 with the exception of DIMITY. In 1923 Mr. Mead thought BENBOW the “best of its color and entirely distinct.”

AZURE seems to have been the only 1918 introduction of any note and, as this is a blue bicolor, one can see that it might have little chance to last a number of years as outstanding. However we hear in 1922 from the Twin City show “AZURE is a wonderful variety and so is MOLIERE.” A great deal of breeding has been done in America with this variety.

In 1919 Mr. Bliss gave many varieties to commerce the best known of which are ASSYRIAN, BLUE LAGOON, CORPORAL, CARDINAL, CRETONNE, DUSKY MAID, LANCELOT, MARSH MARIGOLD, PALADIN, PHYLLIS BLISS, RODNEY, TITAN, TOM TIT and TRISTRAM. The most outstanding were CARDINAL, PHYLLIS BLISS, MARSH MARIGOLD and TITAN and these are really good irises today. It is interesting to note that when reading the comments in the press of that time CARDINAL is not mentioned except casually and all the excitement is caused by PHYLLIS BLISS. A comment a year or so later by Mr. Mead is “Somewhat deeper (than MRS. ALAN GRAY) and also very fine in growth is the superior PHYLLIS BLISS. Of even taller growth, fully forty inches, is Mr. Bliss’s LANCELOT, quite distinctive with its bright orange beard, although I should say it is not so valuable a plant as DELICATISSIMA.” PHYLLIS BLISS was first introduced as a pink (!) when it is only a much pinker lavender than had been seen up to that time. With the exception, perhaps, of the pale pink Of QUEEN OF MAY there was little in the way of a pink iris to be found. It is a pity that the label “pink” was attached to PHYLLIS BLISS, for this very charming variety in a color much needed then received some rough treatment in consequence, and this is a bad habit of writers to explain about an iris and rashly state it to be the “reddest” or “pinkest” when they know not what may be coming along shortly. iris cardinalOften the breeder of the variety in question has nothing to do with this claim but some spiteful writer later on will speak about a newer origination yet which he favors and damn the first innocent iris by saying “____’s claim to being the reddest” when the innocent breeder himself made no such claim for his offspring. A comment on PHYLLIS BLISS in 1924 from America shows that this variety had its place. “It is a light lavender of exquisite coloring and adds a beautiful tone to our garden which is not to be found in any other and it is especially free flowering.” Again in 1919 we find no comments in the press about TITAN though there are plenty later. Of these 1919 introductions again the DOMINION children (CARDINAL, TITAN, MOA) are those that stand out in our gardens now but there were among them two charming varieties that received much attention during the next following years and whose names keep cropping up in plans for good iris gardens today. These are ROSEWAY and TOM TIT. ROSEWAY for many years has been considered an iris of preeminent garden value by people who know what mass of color with carrying quality means and Tom TIT, of graceful habit and clear dark blue, is indispensable not only in the garden, but for use as a cut flower, particularly for arrangements to be used on the dining-table. SWEET LAVENDER was a variety which became very popular although at the time it was introduced comments were contradictory. We read “SWEET LAVENDER is as strong a grower as AMBASSADEUR or LENT A. WILLIAMSON. The flowering stem is very strong and the flowers are held on good branches. It has averaged forty-two inches in height in my garden. The flower is somewhat crinkled on the surface and, in my opinion, should score at least 90.” This in America, while in Canada ” SWEET LAVENDER called forth varied comment” and in England, “Still thinking of quiet tones, SWEET LAVENDER appears. This beautiful iris, in colour difficult of description, has been too modest in the past but has won admiration in America and France but generally passes notice here.” Dr. Berry, in speaking of CRETONNE said “The flower is not very large but the falls form a robe of pure velvet.”

In 1920 there were about half the number of introductions that there were the year before and here we find three that were outstanding, BERTRAND, MRS. COWLEY and DAPHNE. Again there were DOMINION descendants and of these BERTRAND is the best known now. RED ADMIRAL was discussed and so was PENDRAGON but the former, I think, was little known over here. Among the varieties of 1920 was the little white SAMITE of which Dr. S. S. Berry wrote “The felicitously named SAMITE is small, but in shape, tone and texture I found it attractive.” TAMAR caused varied comments, some enthusiastic, some not. “TAMAR is distinct, splendid in height and growth but it did not appeal to me in the garden” and then, again, “Several big vases of TAMAR made a wonderful showing and again proved that this variety is going to become an important garden sort, even if a single spike is uninviting.” “TAMAR, while not especially notable as a single flower, will be found to be one of the most striking Irises for mass effect that has been introduced.” MRS. COWLEY is perhaps the best of all of these, “a fetching thing of bronzy buff and brownish wine,” and with splendid garden value being very free flowering. Mr. Mead has known how to use this variety with beautiful effect and his combinations with MRS. COWLEY, pale pink bicolors and pale lavenders are very marvelous.

In an article written by Mr. Bliss on Bearded irises in 1921 he speaks of thirty-eight varieties and never mentions one of his own until near the end when he says “MAORI KING, rivaled only by MARSH MARIGOLD,” and while speaking of THORBECKE he says “I know of no rival except TRISTRAM or RICHARD II. ” Thus we see how modest was Mr. Bliss, so different from some breeders who tout their originations and who will not even allow that there was ever another iris that equaled their own.

By this time we begin to get reverberations from the earlier introductions and we hear that RODNEY, DRAKE, SUFFREN, BENBOW, COMMODORE, VIKING and ARGONAUT are all too much alike; that “RODNEY, E. H. JENKINS, BENBOW, MORWELL, MRS. TINLEY and DRAKE are very close to CATERINA” and “DRAKE is a clearer blue than either MORWELL or CATERINA”; “RODNEY is a great improvement over MARY GRAY”; “BENBOW is deepest in tone of them all, a deep violet blue” and that there was “a feeling of wealth untold from AIDA.” Also, “If one were to criticize these pallidas at all it would be that some of them have a tendency for the falls to reflex too much back towards the stem.” Or, “MOA, TITAN and CANOPUS, all of the DOMINION race have appeared this year in the catalogue of G. G. Whitelegg & Co. They are equally rich with LENT A. WILLIAMSON and even more brilliant, wonderful things at prices ranging from about fifteen to thirty dollars.” TOM TIT, DIMITY, DOMINION and TITAN were shown in 1922 in America and made a very favorable impression. And in England, “TITAN, an immense flowered Iris of the DOMINION race, but not of a particularly pleasing colour. Up till this year I have always considered TITAN was a much over-rated Iris but the general carriage of the flowers and the vigour of the plant have quite outweighed my objection as to colour which, after all, is not bad. Standards, light violet-blue, Falls, violet-purple, deeper in centre, conspicuously reticulated on white at the haft. Height three feet, free-flowering”

In 1921, while there was a goodly list of introductions, the best was probably EVADNE, “one of the most telling of the so-called reds, height about three feet and a good ‘doer’ “; “a rose-red, vigorous and free-blooming.” Mrs. Murrell wrote at a later date, “Mr. Bliss’s lovely EVADNE, I cannot praise too highly this very beautiful Iris. It is a plant of great vigor and, to my mind, has no fault. The foliage as well as the colour of the flowers being particularly beautiful. The flowers are very fine in shape with spreading falls of exceptional substance set on strong, well-branched stems, three and a half feet, the colour a warm, rosy bronze-red.” This is not a DOMINION child but still has very good substance.

iris mrs. valerie westSo now we come to the year 1922, when there was the Iris Conference in France and when Mr. Bliss introduced perhaps the most talked about of all his DOMINION irises, BRUNO. In the group for this year were also GLAMOUR, LADY BYNG, SWAZI, YEOMAN, TENEBRAE, CITRONELLA, SUSAN BLISS and DUKE OF BEDFORD. A most notable array and one which caused a veritable sensation. All were lavish in their praise of BRUNO and SUSAN BLISS but much discussion was rife over CITRONELLA. Mr. Bliss won the class for the best single stalk not yet in commerce with BRUNO and the class for three varieties with CITRONELLA, DUKE OF BEDFORD and SWAZI and in Paris he won with BRUNO, SWAZI and CITRONELLA. Mr. Murrell said in 1923, “I consider BRUNO the best iris I have ever seen and this is followed closely (in order of merit) by MOA, CARDINAL, TENEBRAE, DUKE OF BEDFORD, ASIA, SOUV. DE MME. GAUDICIIIAU, SWAZI, APHRODITE, MAGNIFICA, GLAMOUR and MLLE. SCHWARTZ.” Mr. Pilkington said later about BRUNO, “This, to my mind, is the finest of the original Bliss ‘DOMINION’ race. In texture the flowers are magnificent, the falls resemble velvet. The colour is also very rich, the standards are bronze tinted with lavender and the falls are deep, rich, red-purple. Like DOMINION it has the bad crossing habit of the lateral buds but not to such a marked extent.

BRUNO did not receive its award until 1929 whereas CITRONELLA had one given in 1922. The hybridists were immediately interested in CITRONELLA, for they recognized a “new break” here and each wanted to try his luck with it. Some raved over the exquisite clear yellow of the standards while others drew attention with all the epithets at their command, to the peculiar streak down the falls! “CITRONELLA, a large flower with pale yellow standards and dark reddish purple falls edged with yellow. Seen in the distance, a fine addition to the numerous variegatas which we already possess but when closely examined it is seen to possess a central line running down the red purple of the fall which, as one spectator expressed it, was as disfiguring as a hare-lip to an individual.” Thus spake Mr. Dykes when describing the show.

SUSAN BLISS was the other iris receiving most attention, and rightly so, for here was a great advance in the pink section. Mr. .Mead said of SUSAN BLISS, “The next nearest to pink and most valuable of this class to date is SUSAN BLISS which is a most appealing, creamy pink tone. It is a tall Iris, from thirty-six to forty inches and of splendid carriage, fine form and substance. The standards are cone-shaped and revolute and slightly ruffled. The beauty of the flaring falls is enhanced by a fine yellow beard. The flower is a good size and as it has three flowers open at a time it would be very effective in mass.” Mr. Mead’s words were prophetic, for it is so, and SUSAN BLISS at the present time is one of our best irises of the pink group as it is a good grower, free bloomer and blends well with almost any color. This was a child of PHYLLIS BLISS.

In 1923 there was only MAJESTIC, another of the DOMINION race and one of the better ones which has great vigor of growth added to substance and floriferousness together with a fine shaped flower and good carriage. The spreading falls and the neatly held standards lend a character to this variety that makes it very useful in the garden picture in contrast with taller varieties of the drooping falled type.

In 1924 three fine flowers were introduced, PIONEER, ROMOLA and TANGIERS. PIONEER is, maybe, the best of the Bliss irises that is not of DOMINION blood. Here we have a descendant of the old. magenta-red variety PACQUITA crossed with pallida which was crossed with a seedling of a cross between CORDELIA and Paladin. One of the handsomest of red purples, it is a good grower, fine, free bloomer and has handsome, vigorous foliage. Mr. Pilkington said of it in 1926, “This is a really fine Iris and is quite a distinct departure from the DOMINION strain with which Mr. Bliss’s name is generally connected. It is really a red purple self of fine proportion and the spike is about three feet to three and a half feet in height; the plant is big.”

ROMOLA received an Award of Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society in 1929 and is one of the best of the more recent introductions. The color is brighter and lighter than most of the DOMINIONS, a reddish brown blend and it is a tall, handsome spike.

In 1925 came MRS. VALERIE WEST, another rich, velvety dark blend of bronze tones. By many this variety is considered as far superior to the darker GRACE STURTEVANT, introduced in 1926, and in 1928 we read, “GRACE STURTEVANT was also there, but we did not revise a previous opinion that it was superfluous wherever MRS. VALERIE WEST can be grown. No garden would want the two and VALERIE has points that render it superior.”

iris carfaxSince these the only introductions have been two reds, SENLAC (lovely name) and CARFAX, one in 1929 and the other in 1930. The latter has a splendid branching habit with many of its handsome, purplish red flowers open at one time. This is accounted a very fine variety and one with a great future before it and in 1929 it was given a Certificate of Merit and the Silver Gilt Medal at the Iris show and caused quite a stir. It was particularly well spoken of as seen growing in Mr. Bliss’s garden before being shown in London and the color is said to be the clearest red of any of his originations.

And so we come to the end of the space allotted to us when much might be said because to try to even give a skeleton of all that has been thouglit and told about Mr. Bliss’s originations is quite impossible. This breeding work has been done, the generations of grandparents, parents, children, grand- and great-grandchildren go marching on. One breeder will use DOMINION and will produce an ALCHEMY while another will use CARDINAL and produce a DAUNTLESS and I wonder if they ever stop to think how much they owe to the man who did the pioneer work for them, particularly those people who have not “grown up” with the DOMINION race as a whole and followed this remarkable procession of fine and yet finer varieties. And when I think of some of the carping criticism that has been spread about by people who little realized what was happening, it gives me great amusement to quote the following gem. “I agree that the number of twenty dollar to fifty dollar varieties has been small and that the first of them have been absolutely new, but with DOMINION once introduced, others of the DOMINION race are less strikingly novel and distinct. It may be that some are far finer in certain respects, but are they sufficiently outstanding to demand equal price with the first?” ! ! The exclamation marks are my own – and I would like to finish slangily “I’ll say they are!”


Compiled by Ethel Anson S. Peckham

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Articles written in 1920 on Classification, in The Garden. By W. R. Dykes, Jan. 10; by G. Dillistone, Jan. 17; by R. S. Sturtevant, Jan. 12; by A. J. Bliss and H. H. Warner, Feb. 7; by A. J. Bliss, Feb. 21; by G. Dillistone, March 6; by W. R. Dykes, May 1; by R. W. Wallace, May 15; by A. J. Bliss, May 29 and December 20.

~ Reprinted from AISB #43 April, 1932.