Reprint: The New Pink Iris
By David F. Hall
Here’s how this magnificent strain of Flamingo Pinks was developed – an entirely new color in iris
One morning in 1942 while inspecting our iris seedlings I was startled when I saw that one of the buds just opening was a deep pink, almost rose red. I had never seen a pure pink iris before, but it had been my dream for many years. Within a few days seven more pink flowers made their appearance among our seedlings, and these eight plants turned out to be the beginning of a new line of pink iris. Twenty-five years ago I realized a pure pink iris would add much to the beauty of flower gardens and made up my mind then to grow one. As most Flower Grower readers know, the breeding of plants is not unlike the breeding of birds, animals or other living things – the same general laws of heredity apply.
Better animals, birds, vegetables and flowers are developed by carefully planned mating. Broadly speaking, “like gets like,” but there is always variation in the offspring. To illustrate, let’s consider breeding iris. If the objective is color, as it was in my case, a careful study should be made of all the varieties available to determine which two would most likely produce the desired color when crossed.
The selection of this breeding stock is very important and is not based solely on the color of the flowers, but also on the characteristics of their ancestors for several generations. This is not as difficult as it counds for the checklist book of the American Iris Society lists over 19,000 named varieties of iris and, in most cases, their parentage. These carefully planned crosses, to be made the following summer when the iris are in bloom, are frequently worked out by the fireside during the long winter.
In making a cross we take the pollen from the stamen of one selected parent and put it on the stigma of the other. The pollen fertilizes the eggs in the ovary and eventually a seed pod develops to the size and shape of a butternut. This may carry anywhere from a half dozen to 80 seeds. The seed is planted in late fall on open ground in the garden and germinates the following spring. When the young seedlings are about 3 inches high they are usually transplanted to another bed in rows about 18 inches apart and 10 inches apart in the row. Under favorable conditions most of them will bloom the following spring.
All plants from a single seed pod are simply the children of the two selected parents; there will be a general family resemblance but no two plants will produce flowers exactly alike in color, form and texture. As in human families, there is always considerable variation.
From these plants, called seedlings, two or more parent plants that come nearest to the color or objective are again selected and crossbred. This process is repeated until the plants become weak from inbreeding. It is then important that there be one or more additional inbred strains or families of similar color, but not closely related, for an outcross with the first so that the resulting seedlings will regain their lost vigor and acquire what is called hybrid vigor. By this process, called line breeding, and careful selection, plus time, patience and faith, wonders can be accomplished in changing and improving any of the characteristics of iris or other plants.
The importance of not mating plants with common faults cannot be overemphasized. In such a case the offspring are almost sure to inherit the faults of both parents. If success did come in producing a new and sensational color in a flower, color alone would be of little value if the bloom lacked good form or substance, or the stem were weak and poorly branched, or the plants were shy-blooming or lacked vigor. So in working for color we must strive for many other desirable and important characteristics. To produce a plant with some of these desirable points is not difficult, but to combine most of them in a single plant is a real achievement.
In time most careful breeders build up several strains or families of their own. By doing this they are able to breed out many of the weak or undesirable points, and at the same time strengthen the desirable characteristics until they become somewhat dominant. This gives the breeder good stock and an intimate knowledge of its good and bad points, representing quite an advantage over a beginner’s efforts.
When I started working for a pink iris I gave careful consideration to all of the best near-pink iris of that period finally selecting several varieties of orchid and lavender tones as parents. The offspring of these plants were discouraging. The orchid and lavender tones were dominant, the flowers smaller than I wanted and the substance thin.
Eight years after commencing this line of breeding I threw the entire family on the compost pile and made a new start. This time I selected parent varieties that were not as pink but had better flowers in many respects. Two of them, Dauntless and Rameses, were Dykes medal winners (the highest award given to iris in this country.) Dauntless was one of the first good reds, and Rameses a pink and yellow blend. Other parents selected for the second try were W. R. Dykes, a large yellow from England; Dolly Madison, another pink and yellow blend, and Morocco Rose, also a pink and yellow blend with a tangerine colored beard. Morocco Rose, I believe, played a major role in the creation of a pure pink, as it undoubtedly carries the recessive gene of the tangerine colored beard that lights up most of these pinks.
First Pink Bloom
It was nine years after making my second start when I came upon the first pink seedling. With this first bloom I assisted nature a little, and in a few hours had it opened sufficiently that I could see it was a pure pink self, all segments of the flower the same color with no veining on the haft. This so often occurs and is considered objectionable by most critics.
This first pink to open was number 42-05. It was never named or introduced in commerce, but has been used quite extensively in breeding additional pinks. Of the seven others that opened that year, Overture and Dream Girl have been widely distributed. From these original eight pink seedlings much better pinks have been developed and are available, but because of the unbeatable law of supply and demand they are rather high priced. Other breeders have developed still better ones that will be offered for sale in a short time. These new varieties range in color from pale baby ribbon pinks with pink beards to deep toned pinks with geranium red beards. The tangerine and red beards give life to the flowers and add much beauty.
From this line of breeding another new and attractive color, golden apricot is as near as I can describe it, has come into being. It also carries the tangerine and red colored beards, lighting up the garden and attracting the eye from affar. I predict it will be very popular. These new pink and golden apricot colored iris compare favorably in size, form, texture and substance with the best varieties in any color class.
A pure pink iris was only one of my objectives, for during the past 25 years 52 of our iris and hemerocallis originations have been named and widely distributed in this and several foreign countries. What started as a hobby many years ago has now grown into a very interesting small business which has furnished healthful and exciting employment since my retirement.
Producing these original eight pure pink iris represented 17 years of effort and the growing of 12,000 seedlings. But it was a challenge that was worth while, not in dollars, but in satisfaction that comes from creating something that may add to the beauty and charm of thousands of gardens in many parts of the world.