Dr. John K. Small
From the publication
by Joe Mertzweiller


The first accurate date ascribed to Louisiana irises is 1788, describing and naming the type species I. hexagona by Walter from a plant from South Carolina. This was followed by naming of the species I. fulva and I. brevicaulis a few decades thereafter. Nothing significant in the way of exploration occurred until more than a century later, about 1925.

In 1925 Dr. John K. Small, botanist, plant explorer and curator of The New York Botanical Garden, became acquainted with the vast colonies of native irises in south Louisiana. This occurred quite by accident if we are to believe the accounts. Small had been doing plant explorations east of the Mississippi, into the southeast and particularly in Florida as far back as the early 1900s. He was interested in all native plant material, including but not limited to irises.

Dr. Small's
Dr. Small's famous "weed-wagon" (a term used by the
"natives"), which he used to whiz around the area looking
for irises.

In his Florida explorations palms, ferns and irises commanded most of his attention. It was in Florida that he first saw "vast fields of irises covering many acres." The story is told how Dr. Small was traveling on a train from Florida to west Texas, across Louisiana, when he first caught a glimpse of the extensive iris fields from the train window. This probably occurred near New Orleans. He realized that these south Louisiana fields probably rivaled if not exceeded what he had seen in Florida. The net result was that he explored these areas annually for the next six or seven years. It was these explorations which led Dr. Small to refer to the New Orleans area as "the iris center of the universe."

Small documented his plant explorations in more than sixty articles in the Journal of The New York Botanical Garden. Only a few of these were exclusively on irises and included types and species other than those found in Florida and Louisiana. Even more significant than the journal articles were full color plates and descriptions of the irises published in ADDISONIA, another publication of the Botanical Garden, in 1925-1929. This was at a time when color photography was in its infancy, color films did not exist and color printing was just beginning to emerge. The color plates in ADDISONIA are based on watercolor paintings, mostly from blooming specimens at the Garden, painted by Mary E. Eaton. The quality of this work ranks with Dyke's masterpiece THE GENUS IRIS. To further emphasize the dedication to this effort, small makes reference to lantern slides of the irises and that the slides were colored by hand.

Most of the areas explored by Small in Louisiana, by his own descriptions, were in and around New Orleans. In the 1920s the area extending from city limits towards the north and east of Lake Pontcartrain was largely undeveloped, low, swampy and wild. This was the area where the trains passed to enter the city, and is most likely where Small first saw the irises in Louisiana. This was primary habitat for I. giganticaerulea, I. fulva and their natural hybrids and probably a main collection site. The part closest to New Orleans was small but it extended east to the Mississippi River, then down the delta on both sides of the river, past the towns of Houma and Thibodaux and southeast to the Gulf of Mexico. The delta area was hundreds of square miles, and according to all descriptions very rich in irises. This was the area where Small first noted depletion of the irises based on his annual observations in the latter 1920s, and which served as the locale for his article "Vanishing Irises." Today, the city of New Orleans covers a large part of the area; development of the oil industry and drainage of the swamps brought the demise of the remaining iris fields. There are only a few areas where I. giganticaerulea still exists on private property south of Houma. The huge iris fields in southwest Louisiana were not explored by Small. These were discovered somewhat later by collectors following up on Small's explorations.

Dr. Small gave (Latin) names to more than 75 of the species he studied in Louisiana and Florida. The story is well known how, based on the later work of Percy Viosca, most of Small's species are now considered natural hybrids or species variants. Only his species I. giganticaerulea is still considered a species; even here there is controversy regarding relationship to the earlier-named I. hexagona. All this is of little consequence. Small's publications ignited interest and publicized these irises so that they became widely known and appreciated.

Collecting activities had many important consequences. Perhaps most important was acquiring the best quality base stock and natural hybrids for use in future controlled hybridizing. Outstanding results in hybridizing over the past several decades speak for themselves. Still, some people look upon plant collecting with doubt and reservations; environmentalists often promote the idea that collecting is the cause of depletion or extinction of species. While this may be a factor with certain very rare species, it was certainly not the case with Louisiana irises. So plentiful were these irises that those collected by Small and all the other collectors in the 1930s probably amounted to far less than one percent of the irises which grew in the wild. By his own documentation Small collected thousands which he distributed to many growers. Many factors attributable to "progress" were responsible for depletion of the irises. Drainage of the swamps was the single most important item; expansion of cities (New Orleans is a prime example) and increasing commercial functions in rural areas were also very important; natural disasters such as hurricanes on the Gulf Coast took a heavy toll by driving salt water into the iris fields.

Apparently Dr. Small put forth considerable effort to establish Louisiana irises in the northeast and to follow up and establish The New York Botanical Garden in an early and continuing effort with the southern irises. He makes several references in his writings to establishing "plantations" of Louisiana irises in a number of private gardens as well as at the Botanical Garden. This was about 60 years ago. Unfortunately, there are no definitive records as to long-term performance or lasting horticultural impact of these irises. Part of the problem may have been with "private gardens" which tend to come and go as the owners of the gardens come and go. Even with botanical gardens, emphasis on specific types of plants often changes. This is an unfortunate result of Dr. Small's work.

As a direct consequence of Dr. Small's pioneering efforts, the Society for Louisiana Irises was founded in the spring of 1941. This society now celebrates its fiftieth anniversary (1991). Over these fifty years many achievements and milestones with Louisiana irises have been noted, but are far too numerous to be mentioned here. These matters are well documented in the book, THE LOUISIANA IRIS, published by the Society in 1988. (A revised version of this book is being published in 2000)."

Without the efforts of Dr. Small and those who assisted him, there would probably be no Society for Louisiana Irises.