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History and Development of The Louisiana Irises
by Tom W. Dillard
Little Rock, Arkansas


For generations the Iris has held a peculiar hold on people. Those of us with ancestors in the temperate zone of Europe, most of North America, and the dryer regions of Africa and Asia--and, of course, Australia and New Zealand--those ancestors grew bearded irises primarily. Generation after generation, families grew irises that originated on the sunny perimeter of the Mediterranean or the mostly dry Middle East. These "flags" grew under a variety of names, some highly descriptive (such as the dimunitive I. pumila), some so romantic that even Shakespeare would gush (such as I. florentina, the source of the fabled orris root, used in cosmetics to this day), and some names are mysterious--at least until their history becomes known. (The so called "cemetery iris" is a good example. Botanically known as I. x albicans, the cemetery iris is a lovely white flower that adorns burial grounds throughout those portions of the world conquered by Muslim forces. The ghostly flowers flutter in the breeze, serving as a beautiful reminder of those who have gone before us.)

In more recent years gardeners have discovered the remainder of the iris universe, especially what we call beardless irises, and in particular the Louisiana irises from North America. Beardless irises usually (though, alas, not always!) offer the tremendous benefit of being strong of constitution, resilient and, most notably, free of the scourge of rot! Plus, these beardless irises, the Louisiana irises in particular, are beautiful to behold, with a natural grace and charm that has to a large degree disappeared from the excessively hybridized bearded irises.

The name "Louisiana Iris" originated with the famed naturalist and artist John James Audubon. In the 1820s, while living in Louisiana, Audubon painted a pair of Parula Warblers. And, as Audubon was prone to do, he included some local flora in the background--in this case a tall and radiant specimen of I. fulva . In his notes, Audubon referred to the flower as a "Louisiana Flag," and in so doing he coined the name by which we still know this iris and its relatives. 1

We speak of the Louisiana iris, but actually this name applies to a grouping of related species called a series in botanical parlance. The iris genus (let's think of it as a “grouping” of related species for simplification purposes) is a huge one, comprising some 200+ species. These species range from tiny little I. danfordii, a bulbous iris native to Turkey that blooms in very early spring on stems no taller than three or four inches, to I. pseudacorus, a robust giant of six feet that has become a noxious weed in much of the world. To bring order if not reason to this disparate genus, botanists and taxonomists, have grouped the irises into various divisions. We have already mentioned the great divide known as bearded vs. beardless, but it is further subdivided into series.

The Hexagonae Series

Species: Iris hexagona

The five species that comprise the Louisiana irises are given their own series name, the Hexagonae. The series takes its name from the first of the species to be named in a journal of botanical recognition. I. hexagona was recorded in 1788 by one Thomas Walter, a Hampshireman who published just before his untimely death at age forty-nine, a book titled Flora Caroliniana. This iris was reported from coastal Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida; it possibly extended into the Gulf of Mexico, perhaps as far west as the swamps around the mouth of the Mississippi near modern New Orleans. It is an attractive iris usually described as "blue," but actually it has a goodly amount of lilac in the flowers that are up to four inches wide. Stalks, normally no taller than 36 inches and often shorter, are usually straight but sometimes slightly zig-zag.

Species: Iris fulva

An exciting addition to the iris world came in 1812 when J. B. Ker-Gawler, a British botanist and the subject of a scandalous adultery trial, published a description of I. fulva. This iris, in addition to being painted by Audubon, is famous for the rusty-brown color it brought to the series. Often referred to as the "copper iris," I. fulva has to be seen in flower to properly appreciate its dusky red coloring. In the tall bearded iris world a dark brown with slightly reddish undertones is generously referred to as "red." The red of I. fulva is, when at its best, exactly the opposite: a dark red underlain with a hint of brown. On top of that, the better selected forms of I. fulva have a sheen about them, giving the flowers the texture of deep velour. Stalks are normally about two-to-three feet tall, usually straight but sometimes with a zig-zag form. Through the years iris fanciers have collected specimens of unusual colors, including a fine yellow. 2

I. fulva has a wide distribution, being found in middle and lower ranges of the Mississippi River Valley, including Illinois and Ohio where the winters regularly see low temperatures below zero degrees F.

Species: Iris brevicaulis

The least imposing garden subject among the Hexagonae is the species I. brevicaulis. Described in 1817 by Constantine S. Rafinesque, I. brevicaulis is a veritable dwarf--with ten-to-fourteen inch bloom stalks. The stalks, which normally have a pronounced zig-zag pattern, are often held in contempt for their tendency to lie prostrate upon the ground. Regardless of any shortcomings, I. brevicaulis offers a pretty flower, usually blue but sometimes white, and it is known for its winter hardiness. Like I. fulva, I. brevicaulis is native to a large expanse from the Gulf of Mexico to the snowy reaches of Indiana. This species has been used to produce winter hardy Louisiana irises.

Species: Iris giganticaerulea

As the name implies, this species is the giant of the series. I. giganticaerulea, despite its imposing size, was not described until 1929 when Dr. John K. Small of the New York Botanical Garden registered several species he had discovered. 3 While none of the other irises afforded species status by Dr. Small have held up to intense botanical and taxonomic examination, I. giganticaerulea still shines brightly in the Hexagonae firmament.

Sometimes reaching six feet in height, I. giganticaerulea is a truly imposing iris. Imagine a clearing deep within a cypress swamp, and suddenly shafts of sunlight illuminate vast drifts of this blue species, its rigid stalks hoisting large six inch flowers of the most wonderful blue, lilac, lavender, and on to pure white. Signals are often large and brightly colored, providing a nice contrast. This iris is found in a narrow band along the gulf coast of south Louisiana and east Texas. This limited range is a hint of the cold tender nature of this beautiful iris.

Species: Iris nelsonii

The fact this wondrous species was ever identified is quite a miracle. Discovered in the late 1930s by W. B. Macmillan and given the name I. nelsonii in 1966 by Professor L. F. Randolph, this iris was found in a limited range near Abbeville, Vermilion Parish, Louisiana. For years it has been the subject of considerable taxonomic debate, but the consensus seems to be that it is a hybrid between I. fulva, I. giganticaerulea, and I. brevicaulis. A hybrid, yes, but a stabilized hybrid and thus worthy of species status. 4

The "Abbeville Reds," as the finer specimens of this species were called, brought great excitement to the iris world--and new genes into the breeding of hybrid Louisiana irises. Like I. fulva, I. nelsonii is reliably winter hardy through much of the United States.

The Age of Collecting

No one knows who first collected the species and their hybrids collectively known as the Louisiana irises. We can well imagine American Indians delighting in the beauty of these irises, and perhaps growing them along the meandering banks of rivers where villages were often situated. Without a doubt the early French explorers, hunters, and trappers noticed the irises of the waterways. It is truly ironic that the Louisiana irises we know today are so identified with the French-speaking Acadian culture of coastal Louisiana, for these were the sons of a country where the fleur-de-lis is inextricably linked to the national culture.

Although a review of the literature turns up nothing on specific irises collected by the "Cajuns," as they are affectionately known, there is some evidence of Louisiana irises being collected from the wild and planted in gardens before the Civil War. By the time W. R. Dykes published his great treatise The Genus Iris in 1913, he had already bred two hybrids of I. fulva X I. brevicaulis (named 'Fulvala' and 'Fulvala Violacea'). This was quickly followed by E. B. Williamson of Indiana who made the same cross and produced the beautiful 'Dorothea K. Williamson,' a distinctive blue of robust species form that looks classy today just as it did in 1918 when it went on the market. 5 Another Englishman, Amos Perry, bred ‘Margaret Perry,’ but he is most important for popularizing Louisiana irises in Britain.

All of this activity is mere prelude, for it took an energetic and stoic New York botanist to put Louisiana irises on the map. His name was Dr. John Kunkel Small, and to this very day Louisiana iris specialists still speak of him with reverence and wonder. Small, a scholar with a Columbia Ph.D. in botany, was a genius. As an undergraduate he published a pamphlet on the mosses of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, his home state. In 1901 Dr. Small ventured into Florida to conduct field work for his employer, the New York Botanical Garden; for the next thirty years he had a botanical love affair with a state not yet ruined by urban sprawl and commercial agriculture. And during all this time Small was researching irises of the southeastern United States.

Small found Florida captivating, but he described south Louisiana as the "iris center of the universe." On a train trip through the New Orleans area he was astounded to observe veritable fields of irises flashing by as he sat stunned in a speeding train. Soon he was driving around southern Louisiana in a Ford Model T dubbed "the Weed Wagon," collecting in his own inimitable fashion. Small was a man who would not hesitate to wade up to his waist in a Florida waterway in order to free his stranded boat; on other occasions he could be old fashioned, even formal. In one particularly evocative photograph, Dr. Small is shown dressed in coat and tie while collecting seeds of I. giganticaerulea. Imagine the heat of that August day in Louisiana, no hint of a breeze to disturb the mosquitoes, and the perspiration dripping, dripping down his well-clad back. 6

In 1931 Small named a veritable menagerie of new "species," forty-one altogether, including the seductive I. vinicolor, a "species" Small described thusly: "The flowers of the blue types are beautiful, those of Iris fulva are odd; those of Iris vinicolor are exquisite." 7 It was indeed a beautiful iris, but the problem was in its status as a new species. The same could be said for all the other species he placed in the I. hexagonae series--excepting the stately I. giganticaerulea. In the end, a fellow collector and professional herpetologist by the name of Percy Viosca, Jr. published a masterful analysis of Dr. Small's taxonomy of the Hexagonae. 8 Small's reach had exceeded his taxonomic grasp, Viosca concluded. However, this hard working New Yorker did much to attract national attention to the irises native to the Southeast. The lowly "swamp irises" were finally getting some attention from the gardening public.

Amateurs and Their Contributions

Like the British and many Europeans, North Americans have a tradition of dedicated if not pathological devotion to natural history. One of the earlier plant explorers was William Bartram, like his friend Benjamin Franklin, a Philadelphian. In more recent years the Louisiana irises have attracted the attention of a cadre of admirers, a number of whom were avid collectors in the years following Dr. Small's introduction of Louisiana irises to the national public. The late Joseph K. Mertzweiller of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, himself a pioneer in developing tetraploid Louisianas, has written of the role played by amateurs: "Following the work of Small some 20 years passed before hybridizing really came of age, but this was not a static period. It was the most important period of collecting." 9

Small was an unusual scholar for he not only published in the professional botanical press, such as Addisonia, but he also felt a mission to share his passions with a larger public. His articles in the Journal of the New York Botanical Garden were written with an appealing mixture of scholarly authority and horticultural enthusiasm. In 1931 he published heartfelt appeals to save "the vanishing iris," by which he meant the beardless irises of the lowlands--the same areas in Florida and Louisiana being drained in a frantic effort to "develop" the economically depressed South.

In the minds of many people, especially gardening enthusiasts who lived in the "Cajun Country" of south Louisiana 10, Small's appeal was a clarion call to action. In Mary Swords DeBaillon the Louisiana iris found someone who had Dr. Small's promotional skills if not his academic degrees. Mrs. DeBaillon, who lived in Lafayette, the defacto capitol of the far-flung Cajun domain of coastal Louisiana, was a woman of storied enthusiasm and indefatigable energies.

At her home near Lafayette Mrs. DeBaillon assembled a huge collection of native irises, including many she collected herself. Here's how W. B. MacMillan, himself a legend in Louisiana iris circles, recalled his first meeting Mrs. DeBaillon:

"Fortunately, I had the advantage of meeting Mary DeBaillon in a camellia garden a short distance north of Jacksonville, Florida. She had heard of our discoveries in Vermilion Parish not far from Abbeville, of an apparently new type of native iris which quickly became known as the Abbeville Reds, now Iris nelsonii. She was quite eager to see it and invited me to come to her place some two or three miles beyond the outskirts of Lafayette. Perhaps you can imagine my amazement when I first saw Mary and Dan DeBaillon's spacious home and beautifully landscaped surroundings covering several acres. Mary was pampering some camellia grafts that she had made herself, though she was well advanced in her last illness. When I had explained more fully about those Abbeville Reds, she was in our yard the next day with her chauffeur, a spade for digging, wrappings and boxes for collecting, plus a heavy blanket for a pallet when the pains might strike her as they did before she was through that day." 11

Mrs. DeBaillon died in 1940, but not before she managed to distribute Louisiana iris plants far and wide. A network12 of her friends traded both rhizomes and seeds. W. B. MacMillan tells of one encounter with Mrs. DeBaillon while visiting her home. At the end of the day his host gave MacMillan "a small bag of Iris seed taken from her finest plants but she had not identified specific pods. They were shelled and all together; so we will never know what produced 'Bayou Sunset' and 'Aurora Borealis'...." 13 These two irises became early standouts, and 'Bayou Sunset' was the winner of the DeBaillon Award in 1949.

The death of Mrs. DeBaillon seemed to spur on further work among other amateurs. Significantly, she left her iris collection to a respected naturalist, Miss Caroline Dorman, proprietor of Briarwood, a 100-acre nature "preserve" in north central Louisiana. Miss Dorman immediately began evaluating the irises, and over the following years introduced at least eighteen irises under the name DeBaillon-Dorman. But greater things were to come.

Society for Louisiana Irises Formed

On May 18, 1941 a group of Louisiana iris fanciers, collectors, and a scattering of academics met to consider organizing a society to promote Louisiana irises. J. G. Richard, an Extension Horticulturist stationed at Louisiana State University and a friend of Mrs. DeBaillon, suggested naming the society after the late Mrs. DeBaillon, and "the very representative and enthusiastic group of people" voted to create the "Mary Swords DeBaillon Louisiana Native Iris Society."

A month later the president of the new Society, Abbeville businessman and discoverer of the Abbeville Reds, W. B. MacMillan, circulated an invitation to charter membership in the Society. He outlined general plans for the Society, including a desire to classify "the various types and colors." He also called for the Society to identify and document all named varieties. Happily, he reported that the Southwest Louisiana Institute (now the University of Southwest Louisiana) had become the home of a "more or less" official Society plant collection. And equally happily, he concluded with the hope that the DeBaillon Society could work cooperatively with other iris organizations, including the American Iris Society. 14

Transformation into an organization with by-laws might have threatened the spontaneity of this jolly band of latterday William Bartrams or John Kunkel Smalls, but the historical record indicates just the opposite. For years after its formation, Society records indicate the group opened its circle of friends to newcomers. Plantsmen like Sam Caldwell of Nashville, Tennessee came to the Society's annual gathering with expectations of not only meeting with iris fanciers, but also venturing into the swamps to collect the now-threatened irises. This invitation to adventure, held the constant possibility of stepping on a cottonmouth snake or, much worse, tangling with an alligator. The tours offered the veneer of danger, an experience that modern day irisarians can no longer reasonably expect. 15

The Society had the misfortune of organizing during World War II when shortages meant that annual meetings were expensive even if austere. The members usually gathered in mid-April in the darkened confines of the Evangeline Hotel in Lafayette. First time visitors to the annual meeting and show were amazed at the greenness of the Lafayette area during the rampant months of spring. Saturdays were spent inside the hotel in meetings and, in the afternoon, viewing the iris shows. Walking through the show rooms with the ceiling fans gently whirring, visitors were astounded at the beauty of these native irises.

Occasionally someone would enter a new variety in the show and cause a stir among the attendees. In 1947 a "dainty yellow named 'Jolie Blonde'" stole everyone's attention. 16 The public welcomed these shows, and the Society was always eager for publicity. In 1945 the annual meeting of the Mary Swords DeBaillon Iris Society was filmed by Fox Movietone for national showing, and Society members viewed it at the Jefferson Theater in Lafayette.

In 1948 the organization changed its name to the Society for Louisiana Irises, and at the same time issued the first "Mary Swords DeBaillon Award" for the best Louisiana iris cultivar. By 1950 the young society had over 200 members, including people in Europe, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Clearly, something was going on. 17

Part of the success for the organization and the movement it served was the leadership of Professor Ira S. "Ike" Nelson, who came to the Southwest Louisiana Institute in 1941 to teach horticulture. But teaching was only one interest of the many-talented "Professor Ike." He was the first secretary of the Mary Swords DeBaillon Iris Society, and in that capacity he served as the coordinator for the organization and thereby gave it stability. He also knew how to work physically, so every year he staged elaborate iris shows; at least once he created a replica of a swamp, and another show featured a reproduction of a Cajun cabin! Mrs. Katherine Cornay, writing in 1946, could promise a grand convention in Lafayette: "We can also promise you trips into the vast beds of native irises where you may feast your eyes and collect to your heart's content. Then, too, there will be Cajun food, Cajun people, and a Cajun welcome, all of which we believe you will enjoy." 18

Not every convention was free of mishap. The very success enjoyed by the Society in promoting these natives irises had the unintended consequence of attracting unsavory characters. In 1947 the Society issued a letter of condemnation to a commercial dealer in Lafayette who had used the Society's annual tour to locate the shrinking beds of wild irises--on which the stinker had "wrought carnage." Society President Hamilton Robertson concluded: "Such conduct ill befits any right thinking citizen and to lovers of natural beauty it is de[s]picable." 19

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