Society for Louisiana Irises
History and Development of The Louisiana Irises
by Tom W. Dillard
Little Rock, Arkansas
One last species: Iris nelsonii
Not long after Professor Ike settled into his professorial duties at U.S.L., he began to hear of a newly discovered group of irises called the "Abbeville Reds," or sometimes the "Super Fulvas." W. B. MacMillan, a shrewd businessman and a keen naturalist who settled in Abbeville in 1928, was captivated by the natural environment of the Lafayette/Abbeville area, and he explored the swamps for interesting plants. He immediately joined the circle of local fanciers, and his pleasant personality and intelligence soon allowed him to blossom into an iris expert.
In his later years, MacMillan recalled that collecting superior wild seedlings "became a kind of crusade," in which "marsh trips were no longer recreational jaunts or due to the lure of the mysterious marshland. Collecting the more striking hybrids for yard gardens in addition to the very special collections in the DeBaillon and Dorman spreads, became the vogue." To make a long story short, suffice it to say that W. B. MacMillan discovered the Abbeville Reds in the swamps of Vermilion Parish, an area Dr. Small had somehow missed entirely.
MacMillan knew these irises were different. They were larger in size, with good vigor, strong substance, and a color more noticeably red. Early one Sunday morning as he ventured into his backyard seedling patch, MacMillan was startled to discover a young man in his garden..."He was so likely looking that, after he introduced himself as Ike Nelson, newly arrived at U.S.L. and with a special interest in finding out more about our local irises, I listened with increasing interest...so, I cut church, discarded all plans for the day, and we found ourselves headed to my pet rendezvous in Buteau Woods...." Awaiting were the Abbeville Reds, and Professor Ike set about to get these irises analyzed for scientific and horticultural interests. After years of study and taxonomic analysis, L. F. Randolph, a botanist at Cornell University, published the necessary description of a new species, Iris nelsonii, named in honor of the tireless Professor Ike Nelson.20
Both W. B. MacMillan and Professor Ike were dedicated collectors, and both introduced several named cultivars that played important roles in creating what Joe Mertzweiller called the "Foundation Stock." This stock consisted of the superior specimens and natural hybrids from which the modern hybrids have been bred. Several stand out as particularly important. MacMillan named a fine magenta selection 'Peggy Mac' after the wife who shared his horticultural passions. Mertzweiller believed 'Peggy Mac' to be "very possibly the most important of all collected Louisiana irises." He ventured that "'Peggy Mac' was the first to show the flaring, overlapping form and was unsurpassed in transmitting this form to its progeny." Professor Ike registered a number of collected forms, and his hybrid 'Cherry Bounce,' a cherry red self, won the DeBaillon in 1951.21 A listing of important collected irises is published as Appendix B to this document.
Period of Hybridization
Many irisarians through the years have expended immense energy and money in an attempt to improve upon the natural design of the iris. We have seen this most pronounced among the breeders of the tall bearded irises, where much of the plant's original grace and charm have been lost to ruffles and crimping, spoons and flounces--frills that merely appeal to gaudiness and change for the sake of change. We might be facing the same phenomenon today in the Louisiana iris world as cultivars are being bred and introduced at a prodigious rate, many of them little resembling the species and collected forms of their recent ancestors. However, there seems to be a consensus that most modern Louisiana iris introductions still retain the old charm and beauty that attracted earlier generations, although some hold that many modern Louisiana cultivars are approaching the maximum size allowed before becoming top-heavy like many of the modern bearded.
Percy Viosca, Jr. is remembered most as the man who punctured Dr. Small's taxonomic balloon, the man who organized the Hexagonae series into the scheme generally followed today. However, Viosca was a man of good judgment as well as good botanical sense. In 1935 he wrote of the potential for hybridizing the Louisiana irises into a broad range of garden cultivars: "...with the assistance nature has already given them, hybridizers, within a few years, will be able to produce many hardy garden varieties with undreamed of horticultural qualities."22
Most breeders of garden varieties had varied goals, but they all dreamed of developing cultivars that would find homes in gardens of the nation and world. A bit of Luther Burbank lurks within the breasts of all plant breeders, and those of us who love gardens and beauty should be ever grateful. This is not to say that every collected iris--nor hybrid-- was appealing to every beholder. 23 Nor is this to say hybridizers actually "improve" upon nature. However, hybridizers use nature's own potential for change, to produce new garden varieties that manifest some sort of improvement upon other varieties. Sometimes it will be a new color combination, such as Charles Arny's 'Easter Tide,' a yellow/lavender concoction sure to bring praise from any garden visitor. Sometimes a cultivar will simply possess a combination of traits that comprise a memorable whole; Frank Chowning's 'Dixie Deb' is a prime example of this. 24
Alas, for every new seedling registered, hundreds must be ruthlessly rogued out. Breeding new plants is hard work, and the results can only be seen after years elapse. Still, there is that yearning to produce something beautiful, a seedling that will produce a flower so beautiful, so distinctive, so endearing, that it must be registered and introduced into commerce.
The Early Hybridizers
The early breeders faced the challenge of obtaining stock sufficient to undertake breeding on a large scale. The collectors were generous with each other, and from the 1930s a small trade in Louisiana iris rhizomes served this tightly knit clan of plantspeople.
Mrs. DeBaillon left her collection to Caroline Dorman, a fellow collector who also undertook a hybridizing program. Miss Dorman's greatest claim to fame as a breeder is 'Wheelhorse' (R1952), a rose bitone which has remained popular to this day and figures prominently in the genealogy of many award-winning irises. 25
Another north Louisiana neighbor of Miss Dorman was Sidney L. Conger of Arcadia. Conger worked to produce wider flowers with overlapping parts, with 'W. B. MacMillan' (R1957) being his crowning glory. This red bitone was considered quite an achievement, and it has figured in the parentage of the famous DeBaillon Award winners 'Charlie's Michele' (Arny 67), 'Ann Chowning' (Chowning 73), and 'Marie Caillet' (Conger 63).
Charles Arny, Jr. of Lafayette evolved into the preeminent hybridizer in the 1960s. In addition to his previously mentioned 'Easter Tide,' he is recognized for his work in producing the outstanding ruffled white named 'Clara Goula,' which he named after his next door neighbor. Arny captured more than a dozen DeBaillon Awards/Medals, more than any other individual.
Like Arny, Marvin Granger of Lake Charles, Louisiana, was a prolific hybridizer. His 'Bramble Queen' (R62) is still considered distinctive; but he is known especially for his "double" cultivars--meaning varieties in which the standards are pendulous like the falls. His 'Creole Can Can' (R56) is a collected double that has been used by many breeders to induce doubling.
A hybridizer of note and a past president of SLI, Dorman Haymon bred 'Praline Festival' (R92). Many people believed 'Praline Festival' was fated to win a DeBaillon and it did in 2001. His sultry 'Empress Josephine' (R89) is one of the darker Louisianas. Another Lafayette breeder is Richard Goula. A next door neighbor of Charles Arny and a former president of SLI, Goula has an intimate knowledge of all aspects of breeding and growing Louisiana irises--and he is considered an authority on the history of Louisiana iris work.
Not all successful hybridizers were residents of Louisiana. Neighboring Arkansas has produced a number of outstanding breeders, the dean being the late Frank Chowning. Chowning pursued a variety of goals, but he was unusual in his concentration on producing cold-hardy cultivars. Thus, he made extensive use of I. brevicaulis, which is considered the most hardy of the species. His 'Black Gamecock' (R78) is grown deep into the freeze zones, including Canada. Chowning served as a mentor to many, including Richard Morgan and Henry Rowlan also of Arkansas. Morgan and Rowlan carried on Chowning's pioneering work after his death, producing hardy garden varieties. 26
Texas is the home to a number of people active in the Louisiana iris world. Josephine Shanks of Houston has been a leader in promoting Louisiana irises through her chairmanship of the SLI International Committee. Kirk Strawn, of the College Station area, has introduced a wide variety of cultivars. In more recent years J. Farron Campbell of the Dallas area has evolved as a leader in the field, having served as President of SLI. He is also a hybridizer. Albert "Bobo" Faggard of Beaumont, Texas has introduced a variety of cultivars, many of them being shorter varieties.
California gardeners are gradually weaning themselves from bearded irises, and the late Mary Dunn has been the most productive of the west coast breeders. She won DeBaillon Medals for four of her introductions: 'Monument,' 'Rhett,' 'Bajazzo,' and 'Bayou Mystique.' Joe Ghio and the late Ben Hager, both celebrated breeders of bearded irises, have produced several outstanding cultivars, including DeBaillon winners 'Delta King' and 'Mary Dunn.'
Kevin Vaughn, a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has dived into hybridizing Louisiana irises in a spectacular sort of way. He has been chairman of the SLI Scientific Committee for years, and in 2000 he became SLI President. Vaughn has admitted to hybridizing "anything with pollen on it," and he first made a reputation in breeding hostas. His crosses are based on a remarkable knowledge of genetics, and observers expect a great future from this young man.
The Struggle for Tetraploidy
Members of the Hexagonae series are diploid, meaning plants have two complete sets of chromosomes (expressed as "2n"). Interestingly and somewhat unusually, the Hexagonae species have chromosome counts that vary little--from 2n=42 for I. fulva and I. nelsonii to 2n=44 for I. brevicaulis, I. giganticaerulea, and I. hexagona. These irises will hybridize quite easily, at least in theory.
Tetraploid irises are those which have, either through natural mutation or chemical inducement on the part of humans, had their chromosome count doubled. Here's how the late Joseph K. Mertzweiller, a Baton Rouge, Louisiana hybridizer and the leading proponent of tetraploidy, described the perceived benefits of this doubling of chromosomes: "Tetraploidy offers many advantages in plant breeding. Each gene is represented four times rather than twice and this offers a much wider range of genetic features which translates into larger sizes, improved substance, deeper colors, new color combinations and patterns, new forms and other desirable features." 27
In 1964 Mertzweiller began converting Louisiana irises using the dangerously toxic chemical colchicine, a harsh process that kills most plants, but in a few rare instances colchicine will double the number of chromosomes in a given subject. After three decades he had produced a series of "tet" cultivars, commonly referred to as "the Professors." These are 'Professor Claude,' 'Professor Ike,' 'Professor Paul,' 'Professor Sigmund,' 'Professor Ellis,' 'Professor Jim,' 'Professor Marta Marie,' 'Professor Fritchie,' 'Professor Barbara,' and 'Professor Neil.' Mertzweiller's great hope was that his "professors" could serve as the "foundation stock" for a whole new race of Louisiana irises. His enthusiasm was boundless. 28
One of the people who joined in the tetraploid crusade was Kenneth Durio, a brilliant nurseryman from Opelousas, Louisiana, who bred a whole string of tetraploid cultivars: 'Bozo,' 'Decoy,' 'Godzilla,' 'King Kong,' 'Sauterne,' and 'Wine Cooler' being some of his popular tetraploids. In more recent years hybridizers as diverse as Samuel N. Norris of Kentucky and Robert Raabe of Australia have produced popular cultivars. Raabe's 'Coorabell' and Norris' 'Kentucky Cajun' are both outstanding plants, with large flowers of incredible substance.
From the earliest years the irises within the Hexagonae series have appealed to iris fanciers around the world. The English authority William R. Dykes himself, as noted earlier, produced at least two hybrids, and even citizens of the southern hemisphere found that Louisianas are quite adaptable.
Residents of Australia and New Zealand encountered huge obstacles in building collections capable of sustaining breeding programs, but they did it nonetheless. No one represents this phenomenon better than Sam E. Rix of Mount Maunganui, North Island, New Zealand.
Rix, proprietor of the Hotel Oceanside in Mount Maunganui, first began communicating with the Society for Louisiana Irises in 1952. By that point he had already built a large collection of species irises, including the Hexagonae. Within two years this diligent and persistent Kiwi had assembled a vastly expanded collection, thanks to Royce D. Spinkston, a South Australia fancier of Louisiana irises who had sent seeds. He also received seeds from Inez Conger, Caroline Dorman, and W. B. MacMillan. "At the moment I have some hundreds of fine seedlings, and those from the first germination are now huge plants, and are about to flower," Rix proudly announced in 1952.
But the best news, Rix reported, was the arrival of a shipment of named cultivars from the Congers in Louisiana. The names fairly spring from his typewritten letter: 'Royal Gem,' 'The Khan,' 'Bayou Glory,' 'Just Kate,' 'Sara Gladney,' and many more. He continued: "In a month or so I hope to see the first blooms on plants like 'Caroginia,' 'Peggy Mac,' 'New Orleans,' 'Dixie Deb,' 'Elizabeth the Queen,'' and many others." He was eager to share further news with his international peers:
"I plan to breed these plants on a large scale, and within a year or so hope to have many thousands of seedlings coming in bloom each spring. For a number of years I have been deeply interested in iris species, and have grown the rather difficult oncocyclus and regelio-cyclus hybrids in large numbers, together with many other types. I have had to work under difficulties in a very exposed position, for our hotel is right on the sand dunes, facing the Pacific Ocean. Storms sweep in from the sea, and have frequently scorched many of my plants badly. I have noticed though, that the Louisiana irises have withstood salt spray very well.
I have been studying genetics, in the hope that more knowledge may make it possible for me to produce something worthwhile in years to come. 29
Nearly a decade passed before Sam Rix finally saw his hopes recognized. In 1961 he received an Honorable Mention from the American Iris Society for a Louisiana iris named 'Frances Elizabeth.' By 1963 it was runner-up for the DeBaillon Award, and two years later 'Frances Elizabeth' won the coveted DeBaillon, essentially the highest award given for Louisiana irises. 'Frances Elizabeth' was the first non-American iris to win the DeBaillon. The winning record begun by Sam Rix in New Zealand has, however, been continued with a vengeance on the continent of Australia.
Americans tend to think of Australia as being a "sunburnt country," and not a suitable home for Louisiana irises. However, Australia is blessed with a climate which, if sufficient water can be provided, will produce record growth in Louisiana irises (as well as many other introduced plants). Royce D. Spinkston was one of the early growers of Louisiana irises in Australia, and he soon had many associates. Robert Raabe, New South Wales, introduced many outstanding Louisiana irises, including two popular blues, 'La Perouse, (R75) and 'Sinfonietta' (R86), and a stunning tetraploid named 'Coorabell' (R88).
John C. Taylor, New South Wales, has become something of a phenomenon. Among his dozens of registrations are several that are considered breakthroughs. His 'Dural White Butterfly' (R89) is a glorious pure white with ruffles to spare, and it is a good grower. While not a consistent performer in North America, 'Margaret Lee' is widely recognized as the first of the hugely ruffled Aussie introductions.
Heather and Bernard Pryor, New South Wales, breed Louisianas on a large scale, and they have introduced a large number of cultivars. Heather Pryor has worked especially hard to develop a true orange and her 'Bushfire Moon' is a step in that direction. Bernard is working on a range of goals, with shorter varieties--which he calls "water sprites"--being a specialty.
Dr. T. J. Betts gardens in a dry place, near Perth, Western Australia. But that has not kept him from registering more than a score of his hybrids. Other Australian hybridizers of note are Janet Hutchinson, New South Wales, the originator of the distinctive 'Popsie,' and Peter Jackson, South Australia, who is working to develop "a high quality red, a ruffled near black and he is experimenting with veining and spray patterns."
Recently the Society for Louisiana Irises ventured onto the Internet. A Louisiana iris discussion group (technically a "listserv") has existed for more than two years, and people from around the world subscribe. This year the Society debuted its "site" on the Internet, one of the more sophisticated sites posted by any horticultural group. One of the features of the site will be access to a comprehensive checklist of Louisiana cultivars, which will ultimately be searchable by a number of functions. These Internet activities, along with a recently published book, will do much to generate renewed interest in Louisiana irises as we venture into the new century. 30
© 2002 SLI All rights reserved.
© 2002 SLI All rights reserved.