May 26, 2020

When Irises Are Calling

Janine Pineo Photo | An iris at Rogers Farm in Stillwater

Janine Pineo Photo | An iris at Rogers Farm in Stillwater

• By Janine Pineo •

There is something rather soothing in reading old pieces about gardening.

No, not from 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Maybe something from the late 1800s.

I stumbled across the website of the Historic Iris Preservation Society when I tried to hunt down the hybridizer for a particular iris I was looking up, a Siberian called ‘Summer Sky.’

Most folks look at a plant — a flower — and never think much about where it came from. Even I do it, despite so many years of gardening and knowing that many of the things we grow are not what they started out as. Humans have planted, bred, spliced and who knows what else to create something different. Better than the originals? Sometimes. I think of the descriptions of corn with that one. (Take a look at this for a visual.)

Iris did not escape human scrutiny and experimentation. There are hundreds upon hundreds of varieties out there. Around the turn of the last century, America became a hotbed of hybridization, including the iris.

Which makes the iris website so much fun to peruse. Check out the article from 1937 on the top 50 “Crown Jewels of Irisdom.” The author of that gem grew more than 3,000 varieties to find the best ones, so I bow to his wisdom.

The 1887 article by an anonymous writer/gardener could have been written today, given the lament of bad advice and practical experience detailed by the author. To wit: “In damp places, the so-called germanica frequently waste away (that may of course be due to something peculiar in the soil), and are very much disfigured by slugs.”

Now they tell me.

One piece from 1921 has a slew of photographs with it, along with details of America’s contributions to the iris madness, breaking it down into four ages. It includes pictures of some of the people who created the hybrids all those decades ago, with mention of that lady who was the hybridizer of the iris that started my wild goose chase in the first place, Mrs. Frances Cleveland of Eatontown, N.J. The story notes that she was one of few American breeders to send seedlings to commerce.

The site is fascinating and worth a perusal whether iris are your thing or not. It is a great reminder of the people who grew iris, made new ones and contributed to the beauty we see in our gardens today.

Janine Pineo Photo | A collection of iris t Rogers Farm in Stillwater

Janine Pineo Photo | A collection of iris t Rogers Farm in Stillwater