Reprint: U.S. Iris thru N.Z. Eyes [1957]

US iris thru NZ eyes, by jean stevens

You know who them are familiar with the pleasure an iris flower gives you when yo look at the balance of its flowering lines. Surely no flower eclipses or improves on the sheer artistry of its form. But then add to beauty of line color ranging from brilliant to delicate, strong to pastel to pure, endow this paragon with ease of culture, and you have a flower that is bound to have a thunderous following. There is still another trait which adds to its charm, and that is the fact that the veriest amateur can succeed in developing newer, lovelier varieties. With iris the process is not complicated.

I began raising iris in New Zealand 30 years ago when the finest in the world came from English and French breeders. Their products started my breeding lines. My first success was Destiny, a bronze-toned, purple-black that was different and better enough to gain honors in England. It still is grown in English, American, and New Zealand gardens. Then, in the late ’30s, I produced a giant called Inspiration, also popular today.

By this time Americans had overtaken English and French breeders, so instead of sending my new seedlings to England for evaluation and comparison with the world’s best, I sent them to America. That is how it came about that Pinnacle, the first variety with snowy white standards and primrose yellow falls, made its debut in an Oregon garden.

Last year, when I had the great pleasure of spending a whole iris season in the U.S., I found it not only fascinating but wonderfully helpful to observe how my New Zealand seedlings compared with those of American breeders.

Jean & Wallace Stevens
Jean Stevens with husband Wallace, judging in the Edward Owens garden, San Gabriel, Calif. The Iris, by breeder G. H. Murray, is Pretty Pink.

During the last 10 years Americans (and do not forget there are more amateurs working at hybridizing than professionals) have favored pinks, blues, whites, and frilled and flared forms. I know because these colors and forms were what I saw as I journeyed around American iris gardens.

Plicatas were featured in a few of the gardens I saw but not to the extent they were a dozen years ago. Yellows, so valuable in an iris planting, no longer were among the first favorites though there were notable exceptions. Creams seemed to have gained ground. And here and there and everywhere the most patient breeders were trying for the elusive amoena. The modern amoena in which white standards are contrasted against soft yellows, pale orchid-pinks, pastel blues, are more appealing than the harsher white and violet, white and purple of the past. I could not help but think that if amoenas were as easy to develop as pinks or blues, there would be more breeders working with them.

As I have concentrated most of my efforts on amoenas during the past 20 years, I was extremely interested to learn how many breeders would like raising the new pastel-falled amoenas if they were not so difficult. Up to now, a breeder succeeded in creating them only by line breeding. He had to be very patient, had to raise tens of thousands of seedlings before he got one that would stand up when compared with the new iris of other colors.

I said earlier that I found it fascinating and most helpful to see how a U.S. breeder’s seedling patch compared with mine.

My patch is notable for the thousands of flowers with white or cream standards, whatever the fall color may be, whatever the quality of the flower may be. Some of the iris in my patch are ruffled, few are really frilled, most have flared or semi-flared forms. As you look around you cannot help but notice I make something of a fetish of good branching.

Line breeding, the more certain method, is favored by numerous American breeders. Doubtless this is why there are the best breeders. Nevertheless, if I may criticize the work of the average American, I would say he has neglected branching for color and form. Rarely do you see a striking new American iris with perfect branching. Often branching is the bare minimum that will get by. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this generalization as there are to most. The lovely new red Trim, and the finest white I saw. Wedding Bouquet, have perfect branching. I, however, want to make my point: good branching is really a must in a garden flower.

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… winner. I saw some wonderful new amoenas in his garden, new in every sense, for they were bred neither from orthodox white and purple, nor from the neo-orthodox white and pastel, but from a foreign iris. They are unrelated to those recessives which tax the breeder’s patience.

By introducing the blood of Iris reichenbachi (a dwarf bearded species from eastern Europe) into his iris, Paul Cook has bred amoenas of many color combinations which are not recessive at all.

His development of easily bred amoenas is the most romantic, sensational, momentous happening in iris breeding in many years.

Popular Gardening magazine, May 1957
Popular Gardening magazine, May 1957

And amoenas, as we know them, are only part of the story. Another characteristic abstracted from reichenbachi has already showed up: hybrid white iris with colored borders around their crystal-pure falls. The possibilities inherent in reichenbachi blood are far from fully explored. But what has been achieved to date is critically important and will have great influence on iris breeding.

Every breeder who sees a new break dreams of what he could get by mating this with that and, true to character, I dreamt as I walked in Paul Cook’s garden, of what I might get if I could add this wonderful new blood to my own unrelated amoenas. I have been struggling many years for a variety with pure white standards and soft pink falls set off by a tangerine beard. Though I have succeeded in getting the colors, I have yet to succeed in getting the right size and form. These qualities I must bring into my white and pink iris from other varieties. When I do, I will lose the white standards for two generations or more. So, every time I improve my whites and pinks I set myself back. How much easier it will be when I can use Paul Cook’s amoenas which are not recessive but will hold their white standards for me in the very first generation.

~ Reprinted from Popular Gardening magazine, May 1957.