The Flower Grower 5(11): 109-110 (November, 1918)
Improving the Iris for Garden Effect
Grace Sturtevant

THE BEARDED or Pogoniris with their bold foliage and large blooms of almost every hue have been a hobby of mine for a number of years but it was with the discovery that seedlings were not at all difficult to raise, and the results infinite in variety, that the real joy of creating new and finer varieties developed; the pleasure made greater by the fascination, and anticipation, through the uncertainty of the result.

I plant many chance seeds because I cannot resist saving those that set on my fine varieties but it is from artificially pollenated seed that most of the finest flowers have come. Fine stock is as well worth using in Iris as in any line of breeding and I select varieties for crossing that have the desired characters in growth, shape, size or good branching habit; the color cannot well be predetermined except where flowers of similar color and tone are used, then the chances are that the seedlings will resemble the parents. Empire, a yellow, for example, is a cross between the dark purple Monsignor and Aurea. It has the growth and form of the former but is a shade darker yellow than the latter. Any attempt at planning for a certain result entails, of course, the comparison and study of many careful records.

When the seed is ripe it is gathered and dried and then planted in the seed bed, which is mapped and marked off into 8 inch squares. Each pod has a square to itself and is recorded when planted; in the spring the tiny seedlings are transplanted to their appointed places where they are to bloom and when they flower each receives judgment on its corresponding card and the good ones a full sheet description.

In describing and recording colors I use "Robert Ridgeway's Color Standards and Nomenclature" and find it a necessity. I only wish that it might be universally used for catalogue descriptions. The terms seem complex to be sure, but Raisin Purple, for instance, may carry as clear a conception of the true color as the hackneyed blackish violet and it does permit of other than actual comparison of plants in flower. I have many hundreds of records but not yet can I put my finger on the dominant traits in Iris in the Mendelian sense. Venation on the falls is usually dominant but in all other respects tendencies only can be traced and then only in special cases; pallida selfs seem almost a pure strain (the number introduced of similar coloring bears this out); Trojana seedlings are usually deep toned bicolors. Oriflamme often gives a flower with wide spread segments; the shape of Pallida speciosa is very common; Caterina almost invariably gives a blend if venation is not present in the other parent, and very frequently a most undesirable flexuous stem. Two pinks often give pink, but that usually follows in the clearer colors, where they are dulled or clouded a more complex lineage is indicated and the result is apt to be more varied as the strong points of the various ancestors crop out; and so it goes, each is a mere sign post that points the way and just as you seem to be on the right road a seedling develops that does not belong. The individual variety with its many inherited factors must be tried out in its progeny. In my crossing I have dealt almost entirely with the pogoniris group, there is sufficient interest for a life time and a wide field for improvement among the present trade varieties, and this group seems of greatest garden value. The nomenclature of the Japanese Irises is most confused and personally they do not appeal. The Siberian group has a comparatively narrow range of color and all seed so freely and come so true from seed that one's interest slackens. The interesting Pogon-Regelia hybrids (Hamadan, Paracina) etc., and the soft-colored hybrids of the Reglio-cyclus group are still a little difficult of garden culture. I dream of a Bearded Iris with the venation of Susiana or Korolkowi but it is still a dream.

I demand much of a seedling before it receives a name and the score card published in the April number of The Garden Magazine well rates the value of the different characters. Good growth is essential and a pleasing habit of growth forming what an artist might call a well composed stalk, or clump, or mass, is to be desired. Pallida Dalmatica, Neptune, Mrs. Horace Darwin, Albatross, Flavescens or Hector have distinctive growth. Height is important for emphasis but the garden needs masses of low bloom as well and it seems as though the large size was often a drawback for mass effect. Shape and substance I value highly, perhaps too highly when we realize that they can only be seen and appreciated at close range. Color, the most noticeable of all characters in Iris, I have left until last. Personally, I cannot abide the dingy tones such as are seen in Pfauenauge and Shakespear. I observe dubiously the clouded Nibelungen and Neu d'Orage, though I realize that in some situations they are charming, I really give high rank only to the clear, clean tones, whether in the delicate venation of Mrs. G. Reuthe and the clearly defined markings of Albatross, the strong contrast in Fro and in B. Y. Morrison, or blends such as Afterglow and Niverna that in effect approach the self tones so familiar in Pallida Dalmatica and Kochii. Coloring may be entrancing for indoor decoration or close garden use, and yet in a mass be monotonous or inconspicuous, and to some varieties I credit what I term "carrying quality," a value for massed or distant effects; here the selfs and simple bi-colors reign supreme, Edouard Michel, Perfection, or Nine Wells have a somber richness; Innocenza, Juniata, Mithras or Florentina show up well, while Windham, Lohengrin or Iris King lose distinction in the distance.

With all these factors to consider I find few of pre-eminent merit. The true Pallida Dalmatica, Princess Beatrice, heads the list. Iris King, Alcazar, the rich and somber Archeveque, Carthusian, Trojana, Nine Wells, Edouard Michel, Prosper Laugier, Monsignor and among my own seedlings, the pale yellow Shekinah, pink-toned Avalon and Jennett Dean, clear blends as in Mme. Cherie and Mother of Pearl, rosy Dream and Arethusa are all hard to surpass. Among the plicatas it is impossible to choose, and there are many beauties that should be mentioned for their all-round general worth but yet do not stand out above others of similar coloring for garden use. Such judgment is, however, a very personal one and fortunately for us all our tastes do not agree.

Any one may have an Iris garden or border to fit his pocketbook or leisure time, from one of small initial expense and upkeep to a large one. I think for real pleasure it should be small enough to be cared for by the owner, at least until he becomes personally acquainted with his varieties and their especial charms. In this way his interest will grow with his collection.

The bed must be well drained and should be deeply dug as that will obviate frequent transplanting, an occasional top dressing of bone meal being all that is required to maintain good growth. Trim off the free part of the leaves before planting so that the wind will not prevent the roots getting a new hold, place the rhizome practically on the surface and firm the soil well about the feeding roots that go straight down and anchor it in place. Do not irrigate or water newly planted Pogoniris. Where the Iris has a prominent position in the border after its flowers are gone, a variety should be chosen that does not die down or have poor foliage, and the dead blossoms and leaves should be removed from time to time to keep the border neat.

I find only two serious troubles for my Iris, an Iris borer that must be hand picked, and "Iris rot," a fungus disease that is very infectious and destructive. I have tried every suggested remedy but have come to the conclusion that the only safe thing to do is to dig up the afflicted plant and burn it all.

I should like to hear from any of your readers who may wish to try growing seedlings or who are already raising them. I am not only intensely interested in them but we wish to keep in touch with other producers so as not to offer anything that is not distinct and fine. The great need of Iris growers today is to maintain a high standard.


More Sturtevant introductions