Journal of The New York Botanical Garden 21(250): 181-191 (October, 1920)

John C. Wister

There has been no comprehensive authoritative work published on this interesting subject, and it will be part of the duties of the American Iris Society to collect information about Iris growing and Iris breeding from various people and to assemble it into a complete history. In the meantime, however, some preliminary notes of what we have already discovered may not be out of place.

Bearded Irises are native to Central and Southern Europe and Asia Minor, extending from the Alps through Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, Palestine and Mesopotamia. Wild forms as generally known are the dwarf species of Iris of the Alps, represented best by pumila. The forms of germanica which are mostly native to Asia Minor, the blue pallida of Italy and Asia Minor as represented in many forms, the wild variegata of Hungary and Austria, and the wild forms from Asia Minor, such as trojana, Ricardi, cypriana and mesopotamica. It is not known when these varieties were first cultivated by man, but it is known that one of them, albicans, was carried all over southern Europe as far west as Spain by the Mohammedans, who planted them on the graves of their soldiers. It is not known when they began to do this, but it is known that they were driven out of Spain before 750 A.D. We have no knowledge of any Iris growing between that time and 1790, when in European catalogues about a half dozen or a dozen wild forms were offered. It is evident that between 1800 and 1850 the growing of Iris in gardens began in earnest, and that several breeders, among them Lemoin, Jacques, and Salter, began their work and produced quite a number of new forms of Iris as of many colors. These Irises were all the progeny of two species, pallida and variegata, and they combined colors which today are known in the six sections, pallida, variegata, amoena, neglecta, plicata, and squalens. These six groups were until recently considered all species, but it has now been proven that they are all the result of pallida and variegata; but it is not known whether these early breeders worked with the pure strain of pallida and variegata, or whether they found wild self-hybridized Intermediate types between them and used these for their breeding. We have at present no record of just what these three men did, and the first record we do have of any named varieties of Iris is in 1855 when half a dozen or more varieties were offered under name by the nurseryman Dauvesse, of Orleans, France. Most of the varieties which he offered have since disappeared from the garden, but among them was the well-known variety Mme. Chereau.

Following 1855 we have again a lapse of twelve years about which we know nothing, until in 1867 Louis Van Houtte, of Ghent, Belgium, offered in his catalogue almost 100 named varieties, which we presume to have been the work of the three men mentioned and of Louis Van Houtte himself. For the next fifteen years Van Houtte remained the greatest introducer of Iris, introducing several hundred varieties of which only a few dozen are still known. His work was followed by the work of French breeders, of which we have no record at present, culminating in Verdier; and by Dutch breeders such as Krelage, Roozen, Leeuwen and others, and in England by Peter Barr, better known as a Daffodil expert. The varieties of Belgium and Holland were sent to France, and were by the French sometimes sold to England in mixtures, at auction, and it is through such a state of affairs that many varieties originating on the Continent and named there, were on their arrival in England renamed with English names, so that we cannot tell for certain to-day whether the many varieties bearing English names are all of them of English origin.

Peter Barr was one of the first to import varieties of Iris from the Continent and to give them English names, but he also named many of his own seedlings. We have at the present time no exact records to show which are which. But such varieties as Albert Victor, Celeste, Lady Jane, Albatross, Cottage Maid, Perfection, Dr. Bernice, and others, are supposed to represent the Barr seedlings, and it is this collection of Iris, imported in 1905 by the American pioneer Mr. Bertrand H. Farr, of Wyomissing, which really laid the foundation for the present American interest in Iris. This collection and all others reaching America before 1905 represented only the hybrids of two species, pallida and variegata.

Iris breeders, however, were not long content to work with these species only. Sir Michael Foster, to whom the English refer as the "Father of Iris," began in the 80's to collect Iris species and Iris forms from all parts of the world, and to use them for breeding. His most sensational work was undoubtedly the crossing of the Bearded Iris with the oncocyclus, a race difficult to grow in England and almost impossible to grow in the eastern portion of the United States. The resulting crosses are valuable because they flourish in England and can be grown herewith more or less success. Some of them are exquisitely beautiful in their deep copper tones and delicate tracings, which they have inherited from the Oncocyclus parent and which are not to be seen in the Bearded Iris proper. Among the best of these varieties are Dilkush, Parvar, and Shirin. From a gardener's point of view,, however, Sir Michael Foster's greatest work was the introduction of the species cypriana for use in hybridizing. Coming from the dry climate of Asia Minor, this species is of a taller growth and larger flower than pallida, and, instead of having the stiff stems characteristic of the pallida varieties, its flowers are borne away from the main stem on graceful bending stalks. The five varieties of Sir Michael Foster which show these characteristics are Caterina, Crusader, Lady Foster, Shelford Chieftain and a few others, all of which have lately been offered in this country. They are all of them very beautiful, but unfortunately they seem to have inherited from their parent cypriana a delicacy of constitution which renders them rather susceptible to rot in our wet seasons, and it is evident that we must use them for breeding rather than as permanent garden plants, for in our Northern gardens extreme vigor is the most important quality. Sir Michael Foster also used the species kashmiriana, and from it believed that he had given us two varieties, Kashmir White and Miss Willmott, really white triumphs. In this country, however, these also are a little "finicky as to their likes and dislikes, and it is interesting to know that recently their parentage has been questioned by other breeders, who believe they are not descended from kashmiriana at all, but from cypriana. It seems curious that a man of Sir Michael Foster's standing should have made such a mistake, and the question opens up a larger question as to the status of some of the collected forms which he used in his breeding.

Inspired by Sir Michael Foster's work, Caparne on the Island of Guernsey began in the 80's or 90's to force into bloom some of the later-blooming strains of Iris and to cross them with the early flowered dwarf species from the Alps. The result was a new race intermediate in bloom and intermediate in height between the two most valuable in our gardens, and which comes into bloom in Philadelphia usually about the middle of May, lasting for several weeks. Caparne is dead, and the details of his work are hard to trace, but we know that before 1902 he offered nearly a hundred of these Intermediates, most of which have disappeared from cultivation, but among them are the varieties Diamond, Dauphin, Dolphin, Ivorine, King Christian, and Royal which have reached this country within the last five years or so and can still be found only in a few catalogues. An interesting fact to note here is that Caparne sold a large collection of these Intermediates probably about 1900, or later, to Goos & Koeneman, of Niederwallaf, Germany, and that about 1910 this firm sent to America a set of Intermediates, including Fritjof, Halfdan, Helge, Ingeborg, and Walhalla, which were introduced here by Dreer and by Farr, and have become very popular. Whether these are actual Caparne varieties renamed, or seedlings of them, is not known, but anyone who grows the two sets side by side will be struck by the fact that they are in their characteristics as like as two peas in a pod. I do not wish to say that Goos & Koeneman sent these out with any intention of deceiving, for it was their full right to buy unnamed seedlings from Caparne and to name them, but the fact remains that in America they are given the credit of introducing an Intermediate race, a credit which rightfully belongs to Caparne. While speaking of Goos & Koeneman I may mention that they have given us a set of late-blooming Iris for which they are deservedly famous, among these being such varieties as Iris King, Rhein Nixe, Gagus, Fro, and Loreley.

The only other breeders of note in this early period of which we have record at present are Verdier, in France, whose earlier varieties seem entirely lost to commerce, or at least are not known in America, but who is known for the varieties which were introduced after his death by the firm Vilmorin-Andrieux. Among these later varieties are Mercedes, Prosper Laugier, and LaNeige. Reuthe working in England between 1885 and 1900 introduced a dozen or fifteen varieties, practically all of which are now superseded except Mrs. Neubronner.

We come now to what may be known as the modern breeders, all of whom owe their inspiration to Sir Michael Foster, and who have followed his footsteps. In France the Vilmorins have since 1900 given us increasingly good varieties, beginning with Tamerlan and Oriflamme. They have in their breeding constantly used Amas, and of later years also trojana, with the result that their varieties are known for their very large flowers. Unfortunately with this size some of them have inherited somewhat of a sparseness of bloom, but in all plants this tends to be the rule, and perhaps may be overcome by future breeders. Among the smaller varieties introduced are Eldorado, Archeveque, Ambigu, Dejazet and Opera, all of which are very rich in their coloring and which are only small in comparison to such giants as Alcazar and the new Ambassadeur and Magnifica which have been introduced this year. This breeding work was begun by Phillippe de Vilmorin in the late 90's and has been, carried on of recent years by S. Mottet. In their trial gardens thousands of seedlings are being tested yearly. The Vilmorin Nurseries are not far from Paris, and near them is located the firm of Cayeux & LeClerc, which, like Reuthe, have sent out a number of varieties which are now almost entirely forgotten but among which Petit Vitry and Mme. Blanche Pion stand out prominently and will continue to be admired for many years. Near Paris also is the firm of Millet et Fils, where Iris breeding has been going on for some 20 years or more, and with a definite ideal in view, namely, freedom of bloom. In their fields it is quite noticeable that their varieties contain many more flowers to the plant than the varieties of most breeders, and in contrast to some of the sparser blooming giants of the Vilmorins this freedom of bloom is particularly noticeable. Millet has raised but one exceptionally large Iris, Souv. de Mme. Gaudichau, a very rich deep-purple for which he will certainly become as famous in this country as he is now in Europe. His other varieties are not small, the best of them being Corrida, Bianca, Ivanhoe, Atlas, Romeo and Colonel Candelot. These have been introduced within the last ten years and are quite well known in Europe, but apparently not in this country. At the south of France is an amateur breeder who has done a great work in raising Irises for his climate. M. F. Denis lives near the town of Cette on the Mediterranean, and he found over 30 years ago that the standard Irises of that day did not give as large flowers in his climate as he desired. Inspired probably by Sir Michael Foster to search for an Iris to use as a parent from which to get size he finally chose Iris Ricardi from Palestine. This close relative of cypriana and mesopotamica stands 4 feet in height with very large flowers of a poor form and color; but M. Denis has been able to combine its size with the good form and the coloring of the standard varieties, and for his climate he has produced what might almost be called miraculous results, for his varieties are twice as big as the standard varieties. It is unfortunate, however, that this Ricardi parentage brings with it a trace of tenderness or lack of vigor, so that some of these varieties do not flourish well at the North. A few of them in fact are absolute failures even in Paris where the attempt to grow Mme. Claude Monnet has been given up by the nurserymen there, as the plants weaken and die. Other varieties of his, however, which apparently have as much Ricardi parentage, flourish in Paris and in England, and appear to do well in this country, among them being Dalila and Mme. de Sevigne. It is evident, therefore, that no general rule can be drawn about hybrids of this species, but that they must be tested one by one, and in this lies the hope that we can bring to this country some of his most beautiful achievements and that if they do not succeed we can at least breed from them to get further seedlings, retaining their good points without their tenderness. Most of his varieties are as yet not in the trade, although some of them have been grown by him for nearly twenty years, and they run largely to smoky blended colors which are not as a rule good for garden effect, although very beautiful singly at twilight.

In England the seedlings of Yeld have lately taken on considerable importance, and they have been very much admired in this country. The characteristic of all his seedlings is their extreme vigor, which is much welcomed by the gardener who has struggled with some of Sir Michael Foster's seedlings or some of the Denis Ricardi seedlings. Lord of June is one of the most beautiful of all Iris and of very large size, and Neptune and Halo and one or two others approach it closely. In yellows is Dawn, which is a variety which will be valuable for years to come. Sir Arthur Hort, near London, has for some years been trying to improve on Sir Michael Foster's seedlings in their size, and his seedlings of Caterina are glorious to behold, several of them being as big as Vilmorin's Magnifica. As they grow in England, these are apparently vigorous and free blooming, but the few plants that have reached this country have not yet been a success. His varieties and those of Yeld and Mr. Bliss, of whom I shall speak next, have all been introduced to the trade by R. W. Wallace of Colchester, who himself is also growing a number of seedlings of great promise.

The greatest English breeder of modern times is Mr. A. J. Bliss of Morwellham, Tavistock, Devon. He has been breeding Iris for 20 years, first for the scientific purpose of determining the parentage of our existing garden varieties, with results which have corroborated the belief of Mr. W. R. Dykes that but two species, pallida and variegata, were responsible for all varieties in cultivation before 1890 or 1900. During the past ten years, however, Mr. Bliss has been endeavoring to produce new and beautiful varieties. He has been more successful than any other breeder in giving us varieties combining height, size, freedom of bloom and vigor of plant in practically all colors, and unlike other breeders he has not stuck to one ideal and produced merely one type of flower, but has produced all the types of Iris flowers. Of the 10,000 seedlings he has raised about 70 have been retained for further testing, and with these a dozen or twenty have been introduced to the trade in England, and a few are now appearing in this country. It will take further testimony to prove which are his best varieties, but Dominion has won a place for itself in England which no other Iris has ever reached, and he has other equally sensational seedlings with apparently the same parentage. This parentage, by the way, it is interesting to note must have something in common with of the Vilmorins' Ambassadeur and with Mr. Williamson's Lent A. Williamson, because these three varieties, produced in three different countries almost simultaneously, have very much in common in their growth, form, substance and texture, although different in color. The other varieties of Mr. Bliss which have already been introduced in England are not this same sensational character, but they are all distinct advances on existing varieties, and will in time, I am sure, displace many of our best sorts. Among them are Sweet Lavender, Cretonne, Camelot, Ben Bow, Tom Tit, Knysna, and Syphax, all of which are distinct advances in their respective types. We may expect much of Mr. Bliss' work in the near future, for he has passed the first stage of experimenting, has proved or disproved certain theories of genetics in regard to Irises, and is now advancing with considerable certainty toward definite goals.

All of the Irises of European breeders noted above have been successful in their native countries, but it is always a question as to how well they do will when transplanted to America, and therefore it is necessary that they should be tested here rather than taken on faith on their European performances. We have fortunately in this country a large number of persons who are breeding Irises systematically, and from them we can expect a great deal as they are working in the different climates of this country where their varieties will be used in gardens. The pioneer of all breeding work, as of other Iris work in America, is Bertrand H. Farr. It was the collection which he introduced from the Barrs about 1905 which gave the first impetus to Iris growing in America, and in 1909 he introduced a set of seedlings for which he at once became deservedly famous. He has continued year by year to give us seedlings—occasionally very good ones, and often not so good,—among which stand out Quaker Lady, Montezuma, Juniata, Mary Garden and half a dozen more, will be grown in American gardens for many years to come.

The most scientific work of breeding Iris in this country has been done by Miss Grace Sturtevant, Wellesly Farms, Massachusetts. She has not worked on a large collection of Iris as has Mr. Farr, but, on the other hand, she has had in her small collection nothing but the very finest, and the seedlings which she has given us during the last few years are of wonderfully high quality. Like the seedlings of Bliss, they combine size and freedom, and moreover, almost without exception they are very vigorous in this climate. From the great number which she has introduced during the last few years it is hard to choose the best, but it seems certain that Afterglow, B. Y. Morrison, Queen Caterina, Reverie, and Shekinah will survive for many many years to come, and will bring her increasing fame as they become known over this country and Europe.

The only other large producer of American seedlings is Mr. W. E. Fryer, of Mantorville, Minnesota, who has produced a race of seedlings which he says in his climate are superior to any of the European varieties which he has tried. As seen in the East, unfortunately these varieties have not created a very good impression, it being the consensus of opinion that they are much too close to existing sorts, and in most cases not superior to them; and therefore it would not appear that most of them and therefore it would not appear that most of the are worth cultivating in the climate of the Eastern United States or Europe; but it may be that in the cold Central and Northern States they will succeed better than varieties which have been raised in milder climates. The seedlings are still too new for these points to be settled, and we must wait for further evidence, but on their showing so far in the East, those gardeners who have known the best European Irises have felt certain in their own minds that Mr. Fryer had not seen the best of the modern European varieties when he named so many of his seedlings.

It would not be right to finish this short sketch without mentioning that there are at least a dozen amateur or semi-amateur Iris breeders who are just becoming known in this country. Most of them have not introduced many Irises into the trade as yet, but from these breeders I feel certain that we shall in a few years hear much, as they are beginning to produce varieties of real merit. Mr. Williamson ranks first among these, for his one variety, Lent A. Williamson, is all that is necessary to make his fame secure for many years; and we can only hope that he will give us others of equal merit. Mr. J. M. Shull and B. Y. Morrison, of Washington; Mr. E. M. Andrews, of Boulder, Colorado; Mr. William Mohr, of Mt. Eden, California; Mrs. C. S. McKinney, of Madison, New Jersey, A. P. Saunders, Mrs. Cleveland and many others, are producing seedlings that in a few years are certain to be of importance, and we can only wait with impatience until it is possible for us to secure these and try them in our gardens.

A brief sketch such as this can merely call attention to the three points; first, the very small knowledge we have of the early breeders, which knowledge we hope may shortly be increased by the research of our European friends; second, the little knowledge of Iris genetics which most of these breeders up to the present day have had to help them in their work; and thirdly, the fact that to-day the Iris breeder has more such knowledge at hand than any previous breeders, and not only that, but he has a better race of varieties to work from, which two new features should make it possible for the breeders of the present and future to give us distinct and unheard of advances during the next ten or twenty years. From what I have seen and heard I feel convinced that we are just on the threshold of very great improvement of this beautiful flower.