Reverend Ewbanks on Oncocyclus cultivation

Taken from p. 13-27, The Book Of Iris, 1904

CHAPTER III

ON THE CULTIVATION OF ONCOCYCLUS IRISES

I. THERE are some things which you have only to stick in the ground and the rest follows with the utmost regularity bud blossom fruit are mere matters of course the end may be taken for granted from the beginning ; but this cannot be said with any truthfulness at all about the subject of these remarks there are all sorts and kinds of ways by which the cultivator may go wrong, and only if the idiosyncrasies of the flowers are consulted will they ever prosper at all ; and yet it does seem to me after handling them for a long time that it is not a case of a "forlorn hope," as some have judged it to be.
I have known gardeners who have pitched these plants away in exasperation almost in disgust and who have declared that they will never spend any more time or trouble over such ungrateful beings. The truth is that Oncocyclus Irises must be considered to be very exacting creatures indeed they will have what they will have there is seldom any such thing as compromise on their part ; but if you comply with their demands they reward you handsomely for not only as I think is their beauty quite a thing by itself and about this there will be more said hereafter but if they live at all they grow and grow and grow and you soon have very fine plants to use a very familiar expression, it is all with them neck or nothing ; they either fail and then soon after quite pass away or they go on with a good deal of regularity and surprise you with an apparition for which you were unprepared. It is this latter circumstance which makes it so much worth while to do a great deal in their behalf. The reward for success is not measured out on their part in any half-hearted or stinted degree, but is satisfying and large. I confess when I first made the acquaintance of Oncocyclus Irises a very long time ago I thought that by comparison with them I never had seen anything beautiful at all certainly not in the way of flowers ; and though an egret's wing or the hollow of a shell would stand for a good deal, yet the freshness of the Iris blossom, the quaintness of its shape, the contrasts it presents, the very refined markings which are so peculiarly its own, for the most part its subdued and delicate colours are sufficient to make it distance everything else that I have ever known, and in a figurative way I could almost fall down and worship it. I remember a good many years ago when I was out for a ramble on the Continent with my wife in the month of May that we arrived one evening rather late at the Mecca of gardeners I mean of course Baden-Baden and I only had time to pay my respects to the Magician who lives there and to ask leave of him that we might visit the "Jardin Botanique" on the following day; this was at once readily given, and I soon after retired to rest with a fine prospect before me.
Very early on a transparently clear and most delightful May morning I got up and passed through the well-known little gate into the enclosure which contains more exceptional and highly interesting floral treasures than any other garden in Europe. I knew not what there was to be seen, but from former experience I was sure I should find a great deal ; and so it was, only former experience was completely distanced at once. For the first time in my life I came across a very fine specimen of Iris Lorteti at the zenith of its beauty with its pale grey-lilac falls its dark brown spot about the throat, its orbicular standards which are of a pale grey colour most delicately veined with red-brown, and I thought I had never before seen anything to come up to this, it distanced everything else whatever it may have been : at last the rb /caX&v had been found.
I left the garden at once there was room for nothing else in my mind at the same time and I fetched my wife from the hotel in hot haste, and before she had been able to breakfast, lest any accident or unlooked-for occurrence should deprive her of a sight which she might never see again. From that time to this, Iris Lorteti has reigned supreme in my affections though it has been closely run by two or three near relatives of its own upon occasion Iris iberica and some others have gone far to equal it.
But now came the real difficulty of the affair for I had often tried to grow these Irises before, and I have had many and many a disappointment to deplore ; these Oncocyclus Irises made such a very deep impression on my mind, that I almost registered a vow that I would never leave them alone while the smallest chance remained to me of doing them well. It should be said here that I possess and work in a garden which has been appropriately called a veritable sun-trap, and I therefore judged that I had as good a chance of prospering with these beautiful flowers as anybody could have in the British Isles. I put therefore first and foremost as a desideratum in the way of cultivation which must be taken into account, a bright sunny exposure.
I would advise no one to waste time or money on Oncocyclus Irises who lives in a low-lying or wettish locality I think they would damp off very soon, and any notion on their part of posing as aquatics is very far distant. But, given the ordinary amount of sunshine which is to be met with in the Southern and Midland counties of England, and I should say that the prospect is favourable if only other things be right. I would recommend any one who lives in such parts of the world as Westmorland or Cumberland to take up with Cypripedium spectabile or Myosotidium nobile (if it be hardy enough), rather than to think of growing Iris Lorteti or Iris iberica among his treasures.

II. Another point to be insisted on is that these Irises must be grown in frames or, at any rate, they must have a shelter of some sort not during the winter, but rather the summer months. The reason is this : soon after they have blossomed and much too soon for their own good they will grow again in this country if no protection is offered they come, for the most part, from very hot regions of the earth, and when they die down they are baked hard by the burning rays of the sun, and for long weeks and months together all chance of growth is denied to them. But this is the very thing which is best and most suitable to their case ; perfect rest is enforced, and for a long period of time they remain quite quiet, and have no thought of movement at all. And let us contrast this with what would happen here in any ordinary year. Some passing thunderstorm and rain, which is so frequent in July, may flood the whole country round, and though soon afterwards the land may be dried up again, the Irises will have begun to grow, and great harm has been done to them. It is, therefore, absolutely necessary to put some covering over their heads soon after they have blossomed, so as to enforce rest upon them at all events, it is necessary to do this unless an alternative plan be adopted, which I do not like at all. I refer to what is called the taking-up system, which may be followed if there is nothing better to offer, but for which I do not care myself. According to this treatment, when the Irises have blossomed and the foliage has died down, the rhizomes are dug up out of the ground, and are put on the greenhouse shelf till the time for planting them has come round in the autumn. It is not to be denied that they will succeed after a fashion with this mode of culture but the contention, on the other hand, is that they never can do themselves justice when they are treated in this way, and the reason for it is quite obvious ; they take a long time to anchor themselves in the ground, ancf beyond everything else, they hate to be disturbed or tampered with in any way. It was an oracular saying of Herr Max Leichtlin, which he uttered a long time ago, but which should be as much respected now as when it fell from his lips, " Oncocycli do not like to be disturbed " ; and if that does happen, they lose for a time fulness the magnificence which they would otherwise have. I am sure that any one who has seen the blossoms of these Irises which have come from plants that have been long seated in one place, and others which have been taken from such as have been regularly moved, would say at once, if I grow these things at all I never will be contented with a makeshift and half-hearted sort of process, I will either find out how to do the thing properly, or I will leave it all alone, and I will turn my hand to something else. The following are Sir Michael Foster's words, who knows more about this matter than any one else, and who is treating it from another point of view : " If these Irises are taken up and are replanted somewhat early, the stimulus of the warm autumnal soil goads them into active growth, so that they try to make up for the time lost while they were on the greenhouse shelf, and soon the cold of winter bruises and spoils them ; or if they be planted late, the hand of winter is upon them before they have had time to anchor themselves by new roots, and frost thrusts them out of the ground ; and even if this be prevented by careful covering and the like, they are not so ready as plants which have remained in the ground to avail themselves of the forces of spring when these at last come." And all this is indisputably true, and should govern any measures that may be taken on their behalf. The Irises have a much better chance of braving successfully the rigours and the disagreeableness of an English winter, if they are well established in the ground long before it begins, than ever could be the case if they have only a very slight foothold in it and a precarious tenure. But then all this necessitates their being grown in frames, and, at all events, they must have some shelter over their heads in summer. It is not to be supposed that they will ever do quite well in the open all the year round, as so many of their congeners do their nature, their habits, their way of growing are peculiarly their own and in our artificial way of treating them we must find some method of enforcing on them rest for a sufficient length of time.

III. Another point of primary significance, if they be grown in frames, is that the drainage should be good, and ample ventilation be afforded at all times. Anything like a stuffy or confined mode of treatment is sure to be fatal to them. I do my best to keep them quite dry for a sufficient length of time after flowering, but I never by any chance shut them up closely or deprive them of a full current of air the sides of my frames are always left open and there are ventilators placed at the back of them ; the plants are protected from any torrents of rain, and besides this and a covering overhead, nothing is done to them.
But drainage is very carefully considered, and if there were any flaw on this head it would invalidate everything. These Oncocyclus Irises can never bear to be water-logged they simply perish offhand if they have any standing water about them. On this account when my frames were constructed, some rather elaborate steps were taken to make sure that the water could run quickly away broken brickbats and large stones were put in for a foundation to some little depth, and on the top of them sods of grass were placed bottom upwards so as to prevent the earth getting in and blocking up the interstices below ; above this came the properly prepared soil about which I shall speak hereafter, and the drainage was so laid down that no rain could settle among the roots but it should run quickly away. It is not at all difficult to manage this in reality, though a written description of it seems to imply trouble at once.
I have never had any disappointment on this head, and the plants have been very successfully kept from any stagnant water about their roots ; it should be added perhaps that the surface of my beds in the frames is carefully raised a few inches above the surrounding level, and this very greatly helps in throwing off the rains. I again say that this point must be carefully attended to, for nothing will go well if there is here a muddle of any sort.

IV. Another practice which I follow and which should not be overlooked is that of making the beds very hard and firm where the Irises are to be placed. I did not take this in at first when I began to attend to their cultivation, and I am sure I lost by my negligence in this respect, though I was quite unaware of it. I am now very much alive to the advisability of very firm planting, and my gardener and I think no trouble too great so as to make sure of it. We remember that Oncocyclus Irises never grant any pardon for an omission of duty regarding them, and we try to leave them no excuse for being sulky in our hands. When the compost for the Irises has been prepared it is thrown into the frames and then it is beaten down with spades with all the force at our command, and lest this should not be enough the whole surface of the beds is covered with thick boards, and I get men to stamp on them and in this way to compress the soil as much as is possible.
Before we have done with it the whole interior of a frame is as hard and solid as a rock, and any roots which make their way in it are in no danger of being shifted about they have as firm an anchorage as could be desired. And this is just what these creatures like, and no one should think that mere fussiness has been at work in the effort. I say again and again they are only to be conquered by attention to little things, and they must have all their desires fulfilled. Let any one who doubts about what I say make experiments with two Oncocyclus Irises and plant one in loose pliable soil and plant another in some rock-like substance which has been prepared after the manner set forth above, and then note how the plants will behave. My gardener and I hold it as a sort of axiom in their cultivation that very firm planting must be adopted. Nor let it be forgotten while planting is under review that the rhizomes should never be deeply covered up. No Iris that I know anything about likes to be very deeply buried and Oncocyclus Irises are all apiece with the others in this respect they must be sufficiently protected from the frost, and no more should be thought of.

V. I come now to a very important consideration indeed in fact, it is the turning-point of everything but, strangely enough, until quite lately, it has been left out of sight and very small attention was paid to it. I may say for myself that I thought the question of soil was in this case of very trifling moment, and that if other things, such as I have described, were attended to, the rest would be well ; or, at any rate, I supposed that the soil had not much to do with the matter either one way or the other. If I may speak of things in this very small relation which are of transcendent and universal importance, I may add that I have somewhere read that a slip, which was an obiter dictum of the great philosopher, Sir Isaac Newton, put back the advance of astronomical science in one direction for a hundred years. He was wrong in this one particular, but so convincing was his opinion and name, that nobody thought of questioning anything that fell from him, whatever it might be and for once in a way he erred. It was exactly so in this matter I am considering, though it has only the weight of a feather in the scale. The one mistake had to do with infinities, the other with the most utter triviality by their side ; but in both the misapprehension of a master, who was looked upon as an infallible authority, led others astray. I heard it said about the cultivation of Oncocyclus Irises, in the early days of attention being paid to them : " I do not think the question of soil has much to do with the matter ; success depends on other considerations" and as anything which Herr Max Leichtlin says about questions of horticulture is received as final by me at once, I put this safely by in the recesses of my brain, and I have treated it as an axiomatic principle from that time to this. I am not the only person who came to exactly the same conclusion about exactly the same thing in the selfsame way but it was in some measure our own fault. I have said that the speech I have referred to was made a very long time ago, and it may have been modified or altered between this and then ; at any rate, I do not suppose it was intended to bar all investigation on one point, as has been the case. I blame myself for not wondering a long time ago if first principles were quite so sure as I had supposed them to be. It was the excessive veneration which I feel for anything that comes from the Magician of Baden Baden which stopped me at this point, and I again repeat that what I refer to was said a very long time ago. If I had seen him lately, so as to speak to him about this matter, it might have been very different. I dare say he has long since found out what we now have only recently come to. For everybody knows that plants may be divided into two great classes those which hate and those which affect lime in the soil a third class being indifferent to its presence either one way or the other. When, therefore, I was led to believe that any question of soil has very little indeed to do with this matter, I never gave a single thought to the presence or the absence of lime ; but I dwelt in my mind upon drainage, upon shelter in the summer, upon other things which have been referred to above to the exclusion of everything else ; and I may say here that, in those early days when the cultivation of Oncocyclus Irises was like darkness visible, so difficult did it seem to be, a chance word from Sir Michael Foster himself rather helped to take me the wrong way. He wrote in The Garden of November 28, 1891, about a spot near Cambridge, where Iris susiana does well, " Yet there must be something in the place in question, something in the conditions something, perhaps, in the soil; and, if so, probably something in the physical rather than in the chemical nature of the soil t which determines success" etc. But this is the very point on which I should now respectfully join issue with him, and I dare say he has himself long since found out that it may be more or less modified. It is the chemical nature of the soil which I now thoroughly believe to be a sine qua non if there is to be any success at all with these magnificent Irises, and if this be wrong, and all other things be quite right, I do not imagine that much good will come to them. At any rate, for years and years I and others have been " pegging away," but with strange vicissitudes in the way of results. Sometimes I have had fine blossoms in the spring, and when I thought I had got to the top of the hill, like the stone of Sisyphus, I have been rolled down again to the bottom ; hope has been damped over and over again when it was beginning to rise very high, and I had every chance of making myself a bankrupt over these flowers, for I never could leave them alone. One year a terrible catastrophe ensued, and really it made me waver for a little. A great authority said, and I can quite believe he was right in his words, that weak manure water is highly beneficial to these Irises in the month of April when they are in a "growing state. I repeated this to my gardener, but without any safeguards at all, and I do not know what he did ; but I soon found Iris after Iris in a very low, and then despairing, and then moribund state ; and my whole collection was wiped out. It was my own fault, for I ought to have seen the thing done properly, if at all, and I dare say the manure water which was given to them was much too strong. But thus it has gone on with very varying fortunes. There has often been enough of prosperity to make me think I was about to turn the corner at last, and then dark clouds would gather, and I felt I must give it all up; but when it came to the point I never could give it up.
Iris Lorteti and Iris iberica and Iris Gatesii and others had completely thrown a spell over me, and for twenty years and more, I should think, as soon as autumn came round, I began to read up all the catalogues I could get hold of, and again to go to work as though no harm had occurred.
But I have not been wrong in the full and determined belief that some day or other these plants would be quite manageable. Perhaps some one may say to me you may be mistaken now as you have been before, and you will have chaos to deal with again. I do not know, and all I pretend to say is it may be so, but I do not think it; there is far better ground now for reading prosperity into this matter than there has ever yet been, and more than that I can point to my plants which are at this moment as strong and as happy as plants can be; there is a very different situation in Ryde to-day from what has ever been known there during the last twenty years. And this is the way in which the great change for good came about so far as I am concerned.
A friend of mine who is fond of flowers took it into his head to grow Oncocyclus Irises, and as he knew little about the difficulties of the task he used the first soil that came to his hand luckily he was adding a wing to his house and heaps of old mortar and such like were lying about the place of which he freely availed himself. I noticed when the flowering time came round in the following spring that he had largely succeeded, and his Irises gave him better results than mine did, with much less of care. I then bethought me of what I had heard before, which tended the same way. Mr Potter, the foreman of Messrs Backhouse at York, has to do with two gardens, one in Oxfordshire and the other in York. In the former of these two gardens (at Witney, I think), Iris iberica grows like a weed ; in the other it will not grow at all : and he can only account for it by saying, in the one place it meets with plenty of lime, in the other it has none and when I was thinking of all this and trying to put two and two together I received a letter from a friend in which these words occur : " From what I can see of my Oncocyclus Irises this year and the past season, I get more and more convinced that the want of lime in our soils is one of the chief causes of failure in their cultivation, &c., &c." Here was a revelation indeed, and it all tallied with my own reflections at the same time suspicions were excited which could not easily be laid to rest, and which were strengthened from day to day.
E. J., a correspondent to whom I had written about the matter, sent me word to the effect that he had met Mr Potter in travelling by rail, who had said that not only does Iris iberica continue to exist when it is growing in chalky soil, but it cannot be killed in it. This seemed to be conclusive enough, and I determined at once to put it all to the test and to be guided entirely by the results that might follow, and this is just what has happened. It seemed to me that bone meal would be as good a food as any which I could get for my plants, and if they like lime at all they would respond to its use.
I accordingly s'ent for a large sack of bone meal to Messrs Clay of Stratford, near London, and I distributed TI2 Ibs. of it between four large frames, giving to each one 28 Ibs. or thereabouts. These frames I should say are 12 feet long, 3 or gj feet wide and have a depth of about ij feet. The bone meal was thoroughly mixed and incorporated with the loam which was put into the frames, and the Irises were planted in September last towards the end of the month, and now what followed during last winter and spring ? I can only say there have been no sudden failures and consequent disappearances as so often has been the case before. I have certainly not lost more than one Iris to my knowledge, or at the outside two, out of several hundred plants which I am growing, and this being the case it is more than possible that this one or two may have been ill before they came into my hands, and not only so, the whole lot looks as if it were in the rudest health and doing exceptionally well. The colour of the foliage is good and I know not of a single drawback which should be mentioned here, on the contrary L may say that my garden was visited last spring by several persons who had an exceptional knowledge of these things, and they all declared themselves quite pleased with what they saw.
It is only right that I should mention here, which I am quite pleased to do, that curiously enough this matter has been taken up very seriously on the Continent, simultaneously with our efforts regarding it, but quite independently of them. M. Van Tubergen, junior, was struck by the fact that Oncocyclus Irises were given to fail at unexpected times and in unexpected ways beyond any others of their race, and he determined to spare no trouble and to avoid no expense that the secret of success might be revealed. He also had last year come to the suspicion that it had a good deal to do with the presence or absence of lime in the soil, and he proceeded to put this to the test he filled some large beds with composts of very different kinds and he registered the results he also went the length of procuring some soil from the natural habitats of the flowers, and he subjected it to a very vigorous analysis of his own. This may be taken, I should think, to have quite settled the matter, the proportion of lime in the Iris' homes stands in a relation of about 150 to 5 out of looo parts when compared with what is found in such a country as Holland. The principal point still left open by him, so far as I know, is if magnesium be required, but it scarcely would seem to be so if the look of the Irises be considered, which have had nothing to do with it.
No doubt revelations on minor points may be forthcoming, and nobody would assert that the last word has been said about this matter, but it is a great thing to feel a hope nay a very confident expectation that if certain plain rules be adopted in the cultivation of Oncocyclus Irises, they will not now be followed in vain ; and what pleasure they give in the opening months of spring ! Perhaps the fact that they have eluded us so long may quicken the admiration to which they always give birth.
They seem, at any rate to me, to be in advance of all other flowers ; there is a refinement, a delicacy about them which belongs to nothing else ; and I have frequently seen men and women almost poring over my frames in a kind of speechless astonishment. It may, perhaps, be as well to say in conclusion that some little care should be taken that they do not suffer when in blossom from the brilliancy of the sun, at any rate their time of expansion would be lengthened if this could be got over. I have never yet tried it, but I am thinking of providing them next spring with a covering of tiffany, or something like it, during the blossoming season and I believe this will do good.
I hope that more and more, at any rate in any garden where sunshine abounds, the cultivation of Oncocyclus Irises will be pursued they distance everything else that I have seen in the way of giving delight.

HENRY EWBANK.

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