(1913) A Dalmation Iris Hunt by Dykes

Gardeners' Chronicle p.321, May 17, 1913


The possibility of obtaining some light on the difficult problem of the various forms and varieties of Iris pallida led me recently to undertake a journey down the Dalmatian coast, in spite of the warnings of various friends that war scares and mobilisation in Austrian territory might make travelling disagreeable. The term Dalmatian is convenient rather than correct, for my wanderings have not been confined to the province of Dalmatia, but have extended from Trieste and Fiume to Ragusa, and inland as far as Jablanica, on the road from Mostar, in Herzegovina, to Sarajevo, in Bosnia.

After a warm spring day at Trieste in the middle of April, it was disappointing to have a rough passage in the teeth of a violent sirocco to Gravosa, the port of Ragusa, and to arrive there in cold, wet weather. However, I set out at once to search the hills behind Ragusa and Gravosa, for I had heard reports of a pale lavender Iris on the rocks above Ragusa, and wondered whether I should find the fine plant that we know as I. pallida dalmatica. As it happened, I did not go direct up the hill behind the town, but walked round the base to the north-east side of the ridge, where I could find nothing but Tulipa sylvestris, various Orchids and a dark-striped Fritillaria which I did not recognise. The nearest approach to an Iris was Hermodactylus tuberosus, which is sometimes known as Iris tuberosa. The flowers were over, but the curious, drooping seed vessels and the characteristic foliage were easily recognisable.

Having crossed the ridge to the slopes behind Gravosa, I came into the neighbourhood of vineyards, and soon found several clumps of an Iris pallida which, to my surprise, was neither the supposed type nor the variety dalmatica, but closely resembled the forms which I have received from the neighbourhood of Riva and Roveredo, and also those produced by crossing the type with I. Cengialtii.
The fact that Irises only occurred on the slopes above the town led me to think that they might have escaped from cultivation, and I determined to explore further the next day. I therefore started out along the slopes above the town towards the south, and finally climbed over the ridge to the east. Once more it appeared that Irises only occurred on the western side near cultivated areas, and after several hours of wandering on the other side, it seemed that after all no large Irises could be considered certainly wild in the neighbourhood of Ragusa.

One of the peculiarities of the limestone formation of this region is the way in which streams appear and disappear again below the surface. Of this phenomenon there is a good example in the Ombla, near which I then found myself. I therefore went down into the valley and across to the point where the river issues in two or three streams at the base of a cliff which towers almost perpendicularly to the height of some eleven hundred feet. The river, as it issues from the rocks, forms a stream at least sixty feet wide. On the rocks just above one of the mouths I saw an Iris, and on looking up the cliffs was amazed to see purple patches on every ledge. The rest of the afternoon I spent in climbing about on the cliffs, uprooting a plant here and there, taking, as far as I could, those that illustrated the range of colour from pale to deep red- and blue-purple. It was astonishing to see the range of colour in what must, I think, be undoubtedly a wild habitat. All the time I was on the look-out for an albino plant, for I have always suspected that this must exist to account for various garden forms grouped under the name of plicata. My expectation was not disappointed, for I found one clump of such an albino, which closely resembled — if, indeed, it was not identical with — the plant grown in gardens as Innooenza. Some plants were almost, if not quite, as pink as Queen of May and some had yellow and some white beards. The foliage was comparatively narrow and dwarf, and it was certainly disconcerting to find nothing in the least resembling the type.

The fact that this cliff, facing southwest, was covered with what must be wild plants makes it quite possible that the parallel ridge, on which Ragusa lies, may likewise have been an original home of this form of Iris pallida, or it may be that the plants now found in the neighbourhood of Ragusa and Gravosa are descendants of some that came originally from the cliffs that tower above the source of the Ombla. It is perhaps worth recording that the white Iris cultivated in this district is I. albicans. I saw no white forms of I. germanica here.

On the next, day I took the train from Gravosa and went inland to Mostar, which is still essentially a Turkish town. My object was to get up on to the Velez Planina, the highest ridge (between 5 and 6,000 feet) in the neighbourhood, for on this mountain I knew, from herbarium specimens, that I. Reichenbachii has been found. As the whole country was mobilised and all the forts on the hills full of troops, it seemed advisable to report my-self. An interview with the general in command of the fortifications supplied me with leave to botanize in the surrounding country, on condition that I did not sketch or photograph, and that I would stand still and flourish my document if challenged by a guard. Armed with this dooument, I set out accordingly the next morning hoping to find I. Reichenbachii, but was greatly disappointed to see, after climbing the lower ridges which hide the summit from the town of Mostar, that everything above 3,000 feet was deep in snow. I persevered as far as I could, but rough limestone, when the strata emerge edgewise and the interstices are full of snow, is difficult to traverse, and I therefore returned empty-handed after some ten hours of very hard walking and climbing.

The papers were full of reports of phenomenal snowfall in Bosnia, so that a visit to Sarajevo was out of the question; but I tramped some twenty miles up the wild and desolate gorge of the Narenta without seeing an Iris on the lower levels, and the snow made it quite impossible to reach the higher levels at which alone Irises appear to occur in this district. The rocky gorge through which the Narenta flows between Jablanica and Dreznica is very wild and lonely. Among the rocks there grows everywhere a Cytisus which looks like a Laburnum with erect, instead of pendant, racemes of yellow flowers. From time to time I encountered flocks of goats and lean sheep browsing on the Cytisus and the scanty vegetation, and tended by peasant women, who were also busy spinning wool into the coarse yarn of which their garments are woven.

Another plant which forms a conspicuous feature of this district is a large bright yellow-flowered Euphorbia, possibly E. Wulfenii, while on the higher levels I crossed wide stony stretches on which a minute, shrubby species of this same genus formed almost the only vegetation. Where the valley becomes broader near Jablanica, I noticed in meadows the foliage of some large Colchicum growing abundantly.

From Mostar I went down to Metkovii, near the mouth of the Narenta, and, having to wait a few hours for the steamer to start, proceeded to investigate the town. In the garden of a military store I saw the finest plants of a white variety of I. germanica that I have ever seen. The leaves were fully three feet high and over two inches in width, and the plants wer3 obviously an albino form of the somewhat reddish-purple form of I. germanica, which occurs here and there in cemeteries in Mostar and in cultivated areas. One of the peculiar features of Mostar is the number of disused Turkish cemeteries, which lie scattered among the houses all over the town. All are grass-grown and neglected, while some are smothered with yellow Asphodel, and a few contain a plant or two of

this form of I. germanica. I coveted a specimen and at last found a clump on a rubbish heap below the old Turkish bridge across the Narenta. As I climbed a railing and dropped down, a Turk rushed out from the bazaar and seemed to be greatly incensed at my having torn up a few Iris plants. I could not explain myself in Turkish, and neither German nor Italian seemed to appease him. However, a small coin or two enabled me to beat a retreat with the plants before a crowd had time to collect.

The white form at Metkovic was more easily obtained by the courtesy of an officer, who at once had a plant dug up for me, and I hope that this may prove to be one more of the numerous albino forms of I. germanica, of which I. florentina is the best known.

From Metkovic to Spalato takes nearly a whole day in a small steamer, but there was not sufficient time in any of the small ports at which we touched to find any local Irises. In Spalato I noticed in the public gardens that not I. pallida, but a form of I. germanica, is grown. In order to explore the hills that surround the town, I took a train up to Clissa and kept a sharp lookout from the back platform of the last carriage as we slowly puffed our way up for any signs of Irises. I saw nothing until we had nearly reached Clissa, and then, as we crossed a rocky gully, I thought I saw Iris leaves. The last part of the line winds in and out through tunnels, and I considered myself lucky when, on making my way down, I hit on the right spot and found the plants I had seen from the train. There were, unfortunately, no signs of flowers, but the foliage seemed to resemble that of I. pallida rather than that of I. germanica.

The southern face of the rock on which the old fort of Clissa stands is smothered with Iris germanica. Plants occur on ledges which are inaccessible without a rope, and it really looks as though the plants were here indigenous. As elsewhere, however, Iris germanica only occurs in the immediate neighbourhood of dwellings, and we must hesitate to say that these plants are certainly indigenous. On the other hand, the fact that I. germanica is almost without doubt a plant of the Mediterranean region and the inaccessibility of some of the ledges on which it occurs make it possible that these plants are not escapes from cultivation. The colour of the flower is a somewhat reddish purple.

From Clissa I toiled on over the rough rocky ground all round the top of the amphitheatre of hills which lie above Salona and Spalato, but found no traces of Irises except a few plants of the same form of germanica, and these always near cultivated ground. W. R. Dykes

continued in Gardeners' Chronicle p.338, May 24, 1913

Continued in Gardeners' Chronicle p.363, May 31, 1913

For more information on historic Irises visit the Historic Iris Preservation Society at

-- BobPries - 2014-07-14
Topic revision: r1 - 14 Jul 2014, BobPries
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