Reprint: Richmond’s Alley Irises

by Anner Whitehead, VA

Richmond, Virginia, is an old town and amazing things are growing in the byways and alleys of some residential neighborhoods. In bearded iris season we enjoy peering over fences to see what blooms have emerged from the many clumps of otherwise anonymous foliage that are found scattered in gardens, and along alleys, and tucked beside the trunks of trees. Although the iris was declared the official flower of the city in April, 1921, largely through the lobbying of the local Garden Club, it could not be said that interest in bearded irises has remained high in this city and most of the irises one sees are historic cultivars. Many are familiar and expected; some, as we said, are amazing.

iris great lakesA little knowledge of the social history of the city helps to track down these irises. Some survive as family heirlooms in affluent neighborhoods, some persist in areas where the population is aging, and some migrated to those neighborhoods on the bus lines where many of the inhabitants worked as domestic help to the members of the Garden Club. Some are still found today along those avenues fashionable in the earlier years of the century, and some are being swapped around now among the baby boomers. GREAT LAKES is making a comeback here, and looking good.

PALLIDA is everywhere, of course, in dank shade and full sun, deeper ones and paler ones, even some rosy ones. Lots of GERMANICA as well, some nicer than others. There are yellows of all descriptions and ages, and also whites. Occasionally, one sees a copper. All these irises have names, but we do not know them yet. There are many representatives of the deep bitones with velvety falls of the ‘twenties and ‘thirties. One sees the venerable INDIAN CHIEF, and, here and there, the chestnut LOUVOIS and sober AMBASSADEUR. In this same vein is purple ALCAZAR, which is ubiquitous, beautiful, and hardy as rock. We know a place where it lines an alley for fifty feet. And we know a planting of another purple, WILLIAM A. SETCHELL, that makes that look like small potatoes.

iris pinnacleWe had been told to expect to encounter LORELEY, but there is not much of it here. We have seen WABASH only twice, and both in gardens. The distinctive neglecta HELEN COLLINGWOOD is around, as are MULBERRY ROSE, QUAKER LADY, and CORONATION, but a lone stalk of PINNACLE growing out of wiregrass next to a trash can was startling. No less startling was the garden which featured only an early black, divided many times, bordering the vegetables.

Perhaps the most amazing discovery has been along an alley in a depressed neighborhood. There, for some thirty feet, overrun with chickweed and infested with aphids, blooms a strange grey white iris with a golden heart. Its presence in the landscape is eerie. Now, we know this iris because we grow this iris. It is none other than MOONLIGHT, bred by William R. Dykes himself, and a major progenitor. As a parent of the iris W. R. DYKES it became the foundation of many yellows, and it figures also in the pedigrees of many modern pinks. It is, as they say, a famous iris.

One is always concerned about irises which look like they should be rescued, so some ethical questions inevitably arise. Irises which look unappreciated may, in fact, be somebody’s beloved plants. Someone with limited yard may have found them a bit of sun. A landlord may have planted them to brighten a property. Definitionally these alley plantings are surviving, and many are thriving, albeit in conditions we might consider less than their due. They, along with the self sown tradescantias, violets, hollyhocks and dame’s rocket are part of the greater urban garden. Far more so than the municipal plantings of marigolds and salvias.

iris louvoisWe have found that most people are happy that you are enjoying their flowers. Often, if approached, they will tell you stories about them, which presents an opportunity to offer a few pointers on culture, or to negotiate a swap. Older people often enjoy having someone else to pass a piece on to, thereby ensuring continuity for a favorite plant.

A truly derelict planting is disturbing, of course, but appreciation of the plant is not license to commit larceny. We have only seriously considered crisis intervention once and, mercifully, the situation abated so we didn’t have to test our principles. We hope we would have made the right decision.

This season, and always, we wish you happy explorations in your neighborhood!

~ Reprinted from ROOTS, Vol 11, Issue 1, Spring 1998.