Reprint: Old Iris in Big Sky Country

by Carryl Meyer, MT

In 1981, the Missoula Iris Society established a display garden located near the Missoula Historical Museum and toward the rear of a large parcel of land owned by the federal government/state of Montana or Missoula county. The entire area consists of the museum and many historical buildings, antique farm equipment, a logging mill, and a forest service look-out tower. There are also several buildings used by the forest service and Montana National Guard there, the nearest being several hundred yards from the garden.

Other than the museum building, the area where the garden is located is quite open and is not protected from the elements nor from the deer and other animals – foxes, raccoons, squirrels and stray dogs – that inhabit the area.

The garden consists of three large mounds, one each for tall bearded, beardless, and median irises, a long curving ‘Dykes’ row and six radial rows, each about 30 feet long. Most of the iris there are tall bearded and any iris that survives there for several years is considered to be hardy. (Missoula is considered to be just between Zones 3 and 4).

My husband [Honk] was chosen to be the “garden master” for a three year term and, of course, I usually went along to help him weed, deadhead, and do more weeding. Since the area is totally open, visitors are there almost any time during the day and into the evening from early May till ground-freeze time. There are picnic tables located under the trees, and quite often during the iris bloom season, there are more than a hundred visitors to the garden area at any one time, it is a truly pleasant setting, and many townspeople come to see the garden and enjoy the open-ness of the area.

Three years ago we had to dig many of the Dykes cultivars as the bed was getting too crowded. We were advised by a previous garden master to not dig the complete clump of the older ones as it would do more harm than good to the clump. After thinking about that for awhile, I decided to experiment so I dug, trimmed and then replaced the rhizomes of several of the oldest Dykes, many of which had not bloomed for years. The following spring I was amazed – the ones I had dug and trimmed were certainly outgrowing the other ones – several even bloomed, much to the amazement of many of the club members who had never seen them blooming before.

Several of the visitors – mostly little old ladies – would come over to where we were working and ask us about the older iris. They did not know what the Dykes row meant, but were seeing iris blooming in that bed that they had grown when they were young. As they were talking about those younger years, tears would come to their eyes and they would go on for several minutes, describing their lives out in the Dakotas or eastern Montana, where it is cold and windy in the winter and hot and dry and windy in the summer.

One lady told me of how she wanted to protect her two iris plants from the harsh winter wind so she took her leather jacket (made with hides from antelopes she herself had shot and tanned) and put it around the iris rhizomes for the winter. She wore her every-day cloth coat and was cold that winter but the iris survived, and since they had survived, her husband allowed her to spend some money on a few more iris plants. She never told him that she had used her coat to protect them.

When she left the homestead at the age of 90, she brought starts of the iris with her and planted them in her great granddaughter’s yard. This great granddaughter came to see us this year, and brought a rhizome of the old iris for us to put in the historic section (it is not yet identified). The old lady had passed away last winter and the great granddaughter was moving out of town, but she wanted her granny’s iris to be in our garden so that other older folks could see it and remember when…

iris monsignor

MONSIGNOR – Vilmorin, 1907

Two years ago, [1998] I wanted to establish a Historic Section and I faced a dilemma – which ones to plant? I started with Sherwin Wright (1915), Monsignoir (1907), Flavescens (1813) and Kaleidescope (1929); then added Swerti(1612), Mme Chereau (1844) and Quaker Lady (1909). For good measure, I planted a few newer ones: Maytime (1947), Golden Russet (1945), Mulberry Rose (1941), and Hold That Tiger (1957).

These were planted in the end of one of the radial beds which had been amended with our usual procedure when we have an emptied open area to be redone: the ground was turned over and humus and eko-compost (a locally produced product composed of wood chips, lawn clippings, other bio-degradable plant material and treated sewage sludge) was added.

I have never seen iris grow so big, so fast! By the next bloom season all of them were outgrowing their space and blooming their heads off!! And the comments from the older visitors – they would look at all the newer varieties, and come back to the Histories and start saying to the persons with them: “These are the ones I grew when you were little – remember them?”

Another elderly lady told the story of how she got her first iris. Her mother was not allowed to raise flowers out on the ranch. Water was too precious to waste on flowers and it went to vegetables and bushes which bore fruit that could be eaten. Our lady grew up out on the plains with only wild flowers. Her husband had grown up in town where his mother had a flower garden with many iris, so he decided to give his wife iris for her birthday.

He took his lunch to work and would spend a nickel a day for coffee to go with that lunch. For over a month he did not buy his coffee but saved a nickel a day until he had enough to pay for two iris rhizomes along with the postage and shipping charges. He had the rhizomes sent to his workplace, and, when they celebrated her birthday, he gave her the rhizomes. These were the first plants she had ever received. As she told me this story, the tears started, but she said they were tears of joy remembering her husband and how he had wanted to give her something she had never had. She was 93 when she told me this story and had been a widow for more than 30 years.

Since the Historics area seemed to be so popular, T decided to add more varieties and divide the area into two time periods; one area with the really old ones, and the other area of oldies but goodies. I moved those from the 40s, 50s, and 60s to the new area, and added Cloud Lace (1958), Decolletage (1966) Camelot Rose (1965), along with some smaller ones: IBs Eleanor Roosevelt (1936), and Frosted Cream (1967), a couple of SDBs: Little Blackfoot (1966) and, of course, Cherry Garden (1966).

This year [2000], after seeing several beauties during the Hips Happening, I will be adding Bayberry Candle (1966), Helen Collingwood (1949), Margarita (1968) and Rhages (1934). I know that some would not agree with my selections, but I am trying to not duplicate colors, and to have some of the “break-through” iris that show the changes in form and new colors. Some like Bayberry Candle are there just because I like it!

Somehow the word got out that I was putting in some older irises and one day a box arrived containing rhizomes of three different varieties. The sender (who was about 70 at the time) remembered seeing these at the Swedish Cemetery when he was 5 years old and would go with his grandmother to put flowers on the graves. Two of these have now been identified: Flavescens (which was known as ‘Swedish Yellow’ from growing in so many Swedish cemeteries) and Monsignor – maybe someday soon we will identify the third one. Planted with them is one from the Chinook, Montana cemetery. This has not bloomed yet, but if it managed to survive in Chinook with no care it should flourish here, and I am confident that it will eventually be identified.

iris kaleidoscope

KALEIDOSCOPE – Katkamier, 1929

Kaleidoscope is planted at the end of the row with Monsignor on one side and Sherwin Wright on the other; close behind Kaleidoscope is Honorabile. I planted five rhizomes of each (mistake number 1); not too far apart, ‘they are little, they won’t grow much’ (mistake number 2); gave them an extra heavy dose of fertilizer (mistake number 3). We had to dig all the clumps out this year – what a jungle! However, I know they will sell at our rhizome sale because one evening while weeding and fighting mosquitos, an older lady came over and told me I had to come see a flower “over there”. Since there were about a thousand flowers “over there” I went along with her to see which one she meant. She pointed at Kaleidoscope, and started telling me a tale: Her mother died when the lady was quite small and she was sent to live with her grandparents. Someone had sent an iris plant to her mother’s funeral, and her grandmother said that she would grow the iris as it would be something for the little girl to have to remember her mother by. When the ‘little girl’ grew up, she took a start of the iris with her but she had married a soldier and they moved around a lot – somehow, the plant was lost. She always looked at iris in gardens, hoping to find the one she and her grandmother had grown, and suddenly, here is was! Each flower just a little different from the next just as she remembered from her childhood.

She asked to buy a start at any price just so she could have her ‘special iris’ again. I assured her that we would be digging it and it would be in the sale. I said that I would save some for her and also write down the name so that she finally would have her iris again, know its name, and could give a start to each grandchild and tell them the story of “her” iris.

When explaining to visitors the meaning of the Dykes Row, after telling them who Dykes was and why the row bears his name, I urge them to start looking at the earliest Dykes Medal winner, San Francisco (1927), and proceed to the latest, currently Hello Darkness (1999). This way they can see the changes in the form of the tall bearded iris over the years.

When I assure visitors that the historic irises will remain a part of the garden, several have offered to contribute their iris to be planted along with ours. At this rate the garden will be come a complete Historics Garden with no room for newer cultivars. This might be good for after growing them here for a while, they might be identified – and I might have another story to tell.

I think I shall eventually add that ‘old purple flag that smells good’ with a special name plate to say something like “don’t really know who this is but it sure does bring back memories”. That way, when I am working in the garden, maybe another older lady will come by and tell me her story of the past and how life was when she was raising her family – and ‘that old purple flag’.

I love the older irises and am glad to have them back in my life. I like sharing them with others who enjoy the newer ones but who are drawn to the older ones and the memories that they evoke. I hope that the Historics section will always be a part of the Missoula garden, because, as we look to the future, we must also remember the past – and what nicer way than through the beauty of the iris flowers.

[Ed. (The Lowe’s): I was frantically searching my files for material for our final issue of ROOTS and came across this from Carryl Meyer who sent it to me shortly before her death in June 2002. There was a note attached that said: “File this away and use it when you are up against it and really need an article.” That time has come! Carryl generously supported HIPS on many fronts as long as her health permitted. The Missoula Garden project that was so dear to her heart was only one of many and it seems that this support continues from beyond the grave. Carryl, we continue to remember you with gratitude and joy.]


~ Reprinted from ROOTS, Vol 18, Issue 1, Spring 2005.