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History of Iris Development (under construction)

The History of Iris Development From "The World Of Irises" Chapter 3.

John C. Wister


Anyone interested in irises should know something of when, where, and by whom irises were first brought into gardens to be enjoyed, watched over, and selected for their particular beauty. For it is from past centuries, from distant parts of the world, and often from comparatively insignificant flowers that many of today's most magnificent varieties have been developed by those who have loved what they have called "The Rainbow Flower." Without at least some background of understanding of the earliest step-by-step improvement in stature, freedom of bloom, and blending of new colors, it is impossible really to appreciate the magnificent varieties we have today.


Gerarde's Herbal, 1597 | Gerard's Herbal | More than 350 years ago John Gerard wrote:

"There be many kinds of Iris or Flouer-de-Luce, whereof some are tall and great and some little, small and low. Some smell exceeding sweet in the roote, some have not any smell at all; some flowers are without any smell and some with; some have one color, some have many colors mixed; Vertues attributed to some, others not remembered; some have tuberous or knobbie rootes, others bulbus or onion rootes; some have leaves like flags, others like grass and rushes.”

About the same time Carolus Clusius described 28 varieties of 11 bearded iris and remarked, "A long experience has taught me that Iris grown from seed vary in a wonderful way." They still do!

Gallery of Plates In Gerarde's Herbal
Iris biflora
Gallery of Plates In Gerarde's Herbal
Iris biflora

Only a few years later, Francois Van Ravelingen, in an enlarged Dutch edition of the celebrated Herbal of Dodonaeus, described 19 possible variations of the standards and 18 of the falls of the iris flower, and in addition 74 possible variations of nine other parts of the flowers, stems, foliage, and roots. So it is evident that many different variants were raised from seeds even at that early date.

Since 'Florentina' and 'Germanica' seldom if ever set seed under garden conditions, and as at that time comparatively few beardless and bulbous species were known, we can venture a guess that many, if not most, of these seedlings must have been similar to those which the breeders of the mid-1800s developed to such an extraordinary degree. We know now that these were hybrids of two species. The first, Iris pallida , is native to the mountains of Italy and the Tyrol, and spreads southward to east of the Adriatic. The flowers are usually bluish lavender and the bloomstalks range from 60-90 cm (2-3 feet) or more in height with the blooms rather closely spaced near the top of the stem. The second, I. variegata , grows in Hungary and elsewhere in the Balkans. It rarely exceeds 40-50 cm (16-18 inches) in height and has yellow standards and brown falls. Some of its forms are weak growers in many American gardens.

Iris florentina Iris biflora Iris germanica Iris germanica Iris pallida Iris pallida Iris variegata Iris variegata

On the mountainsides where these two species grew together, many wild hybrids appeared, which were first considered to be species and so were named amoena, neglecta, plicata, squalens. From these wild types growing together in gardens and further mixed by natural crossing of bees, came the extraordinary color range which gave the Iris the name of 'The Rainbow Flower." As time went on, botanists began to question just which were wild species and which were hybrids. W. R. Dykes, exploring the wild mountainsides east of the Adriatic, found the true species and innumerable hybrids intermediate between the two. As further proof of the origin of these wild hybrids, he turned collected plants of authentic I. pallida and I. variegata over to Bliss, an English hybridizer, with the request that he hybridize them and check the results ( Bliss 1922). In his first generation hybrids, Bliss reproduced most of the wild hybrid types and raised seedlings practically indistinguishable from the finest nineteenth century named varieties.

Iris amoena Iris amoena Iris Neglecta Iris Neglecta Iris pallida Iris pallida Iris squalens Iris squalens


We had no real history of the development of the bearded iris as a garden flower at the time the American Iris Society was founded in 1920. Then through the efforts of the officers of this Society, checklists of varieties with the name of the raiser and the date of introduction were prepared. Old catalogs of German, Dutch, Belgian, French, British, and American origin were searched. Fairly complete accounts of the work of breeders between 1870 and 1920 ; were soon brought together. Information about iris varieties originated before 1870 was, however, very hard to find. Older catalogs gave lists of varieties, but nothing about the raisers. Garden publications had articles about the beauty of the flowers, but little about their history. The effort to learn about the origins of these varieties was nearly given up when quite by chance the first $ecretary of the Society, Robert S. Sturtevant, found an 1870 reference to the fine iris collection of the Dutch bulb firm of Krelage.


Correspondence disclosed that E. H. Krelage, a grandson of the founder of the more than century-old firm, had kept not only the old catalogs of the firm, but also those of other prominent growers. Krelage offered· to search these for us and to write an article on the subject. This appeared in the second Bulletin issued by the American Iris Society, in January 1921. It gave a complete history of iris introductions during the half century ending with 1870 (Krelage 1921).

Krelage wrote that more than a half dozen so-called "species" of bearded iris had long been grown side-by-side in gardens and that bees had cross-pollinated them, giving rise to countless color forms. No one, however, had named these, or propagated or distributed them before the time of von Berg of Neuenkirchen, Germany, and De Bure of Paris, who were born in the 1780s and commenced their work in the early 1800s.

Von Berg described and gave Latin names to many seedlings, but apparently did not distribute them. De Bure (about 1822) named, also in Latin, the first garden variety of iris that was introduced into commerce and later was often referred to in the gardening press. It was a plicata which he named Buriensis for himself. Plants believed to be the authentic variety were still in commerce in 1920, and were then grown in the American Iris Society's first test garden, at the New York Botanical Garden. Nothing is known, except records of the seed parentage, of several hundred varieties De Bure raised in the 1830s. His name, however, should loom large in the memory of iris enthusiasts because it was he who set in motion the train of events that led to the formation of all present-day iris societies, and who influenced the development of the improved varieties we now enjoy.


De Bure influenced one man, Mons. Jacques, to grow iris seedlings and to introduce them into commerce. These varieties, with the one exception of 'Aurea', which in 1920 was still one of the best yellows, may not have amounted to much. But Jacques was head gardener of the Royal Neuilly Domaine at Villers, and one of the most eminent French horticulturists of the 1820s, 1830s and 1840s. He made irises better known, and best of all, he inspired Mons. Lémon of Belleville, France, to specialize in iris. Lémon was a nurseryman and his catalogs went far and wide. In 1840, he put irises on the map by listing and offering for sale 100 varieties raised by himself (with the aid of the bees) and given vernacular as well as Latin names. Some of these are yet available. The very finest of this first hundred, a dark two-tone purplish brown, he named Jacquesiana in honor of the man who had inspired his work. It is still in several historical collections as is Mme Chéreau, the variety he named in 1844 for the wife of the president of the National Horticultural Society. Mme Chéreau, a tall plicata, was one of the most widely distributed and popularly acclaimed varieties of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

For 10 or 15 years during the middle of the nineteenth century, Lémon offered new varieties annually. Soon lists of these began to appear in the catalogs of Louis Van Houtte in Ghent, of Victor and Eugene Verdier in Paris, and of John Salter in England. Each of these men up to the 1870s also offered seedlings of their own, grown in an effort to rival the Lémon varieties, and thus to enhance the reputation of their own nurseries.


After 1870, and the Franco-Prussian War, interest in irises declined on the European continent. In England in the 1870s and 1880s, new varieties were being raised and introduced by Peter Barr of London and Taplow, by Robert Parker of Tooting, and by Thomas Ware of Tottenham. Whether they made hand crosses or still relied on bees is not known, but in the 1890s hand crosses were being made in Germany by Goos and Koenemann, and in England by Amos Perry and by George Reuthe.

The varieties of the late 1890s were considered so fine that many growers believed further improvement impossible. Barr classified the varieties in his catalogs under what he considered the six principal species-Iris pallida, variegata, amoena, neglecta, plicata, and squalens. That, however, is getting ahead of our story, and the beginning of iris growing in the United States should first be considered.


The earliest permanent settlers ot the North American continent brought irises with them and by the early nineteenth century a dozen or more hybrids, such as Germanica, Florentina, Flavescens, Odoratissima and Sambucina, were commonly grown under the general name of "Flags."- Nurserymen such as William Prince had offered these, and later in the century the varieties of Lémon and Salter undoubtedly came to America in mixtures. Leonard Joerg, and Hallock and Thorpe brought Japanese irises to Long Island in the 1870s and 1880s. Their collections later passed into the hands of that master advertiser, John Lewis Childs, and were sold across the country in countless thousands. Few of these survived more than a few years and by the end of the century people were turning back to bearded irises, which were easier to grow. At that time, the Barr catalog with its classification by "species," was being sent to nurserymen in this country. One of them fell into the hands of an amateur gardener who was running a music store in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Here was another link in the chain of events leading to the present-day development of the iris, for this music store owner, Bertrand H. Farr, imported the entire Barr collection of 100 or more varieties. These, with new varieties of peonies he had imported from Kelway in England, and from Paillet and Dessert in France, filled Mr. Farr with such enthusiasm that he sold out his music business and started a nursery in nearby Wyomissing.

At about the same time, in Nebraska, the Rev. C. S. Harrison was growing and writing about irises. In 1905 he published A Manual of the Iris and sold copies for about 25 cents. He is credited with influencing Hans and Jacob Sass to take up iris breeding.

By 1905 Farr was growing great quantities of seedlings. In 1909 he named and introduced a set of these with great fanfare and at the hitherto unknown high price of 50, and later, 75 cents apiece. By advertising with color plates, these quickly became known. Conservative gardeners thought the descriptions exaggerated and the price too high, but many others who read the new Garden Magazine tried them and were delighted. Among the varieties of that year and succeeding years were 'Quaker Lady', 'Juniata', 'Mount Penn', 'Wyomissing', and 'Anna Farr'. This last variety was named for his wife and he was very proud of it. It proved, however, to be a weak grower and when his stock died out he filled orders for it with another seedling much like it, causing a confusion that was never straightened out.

Every one of these Farr irises was "tops" for many years, and I still think that for demure and exquisite beauty 'Quaker Lady' has never been surpassed. Mr. Farr planted a large bed of his seedlings at the 1915 San Francisco World's Fair and received a gold medal. This was well deserved, even though it was learned later that he had no competition. He apparently did not go to the fair himself and thus missed the opportunity of meeting two of California's great iris enthusiasts of that time, Sydney B. Mitchell and William Mohr, who lived just across the Bay.

The only commercial grower in California at the time seems to have been Mrs. Jennett Dean of Moneta, a Los Angeles suburb. She later became famous as the first to receive a Millet catalog and the first to bring to this country some of the southern French varieties of Ferdinand Denis. But Bertrand Farr did not rely on his seedlings alone. He brought varieties from Europe--'Princess Beatrice' from Barr, 'Black Prince' from Perry, 'Mrs. Horace Darwin' from Wallace, 'Dawn' from Yeld, 'Iris King', 'Loreley', 'Rhein Nixe', and intermediate varieties like 'Fritjof' from Goos and Koenemann, 'Ma Mie' from Cayeux, 'Prosper Laugier' from Verdier, 'Eldorado' from Vilmorin, dwarfs and intermediates from W. J. Caparne in Guernsey, to name just a few of the varieties that whetted the appetite of American gardeners for the great new things that were about to fall upon them like an avalanche.


In addition to Farr, other American breeders of the early 20th century were experimenting with new types of Iris from Asia Minor. But to set the stage for these we must go back to England in the 1890s, the time when growers were despairing of further improvement. Prof. (later Sir) Michael Foster was teaching physiology in Cambridge in the 1880s and 1890s. His hobby was gardening and his favorite flower was the iris. He grew countless species belonging to all of the main groups as later classified by Dykes. He tried his hand at crossing almost everything, and raised many superb hybrids now little known. Among these were the oncocyclus hybrids with such strange names as 'Dilkash', 'Dorak', 'Giran', 'Ismali', 'Parsam', and 'Parvar'. These were unlike anything ever seen before. On our east coast they were weak growers. Today our west coast growers like their own oncos better.

Foster raised spuria hybrids also, one of the best between Iris monnieri and I. spuria being christened Monspur. Nurserymen took to growing plants from its seed and of course got all types of nondescript flowers.

But much as Foster studied diverse types of iris and grew them and made notes on them which he passed on to Dykes, we think of him mostly for his work with bearded irises. In the early 1890s he se}ected from a miscellaneous seedling batch, two not very tall varieties that he named for two neighbors and friends, 'Mrs. George Darwin' and 'Mrs. Horace Darwin'. They were whites, and the first had a touch of gold at the throat that made it stand out from any other. It aIso had the virtue of being very late and was at its best when most other varieties had finished blooming.

But fine as these varieties were, Foster agreed with those who said that further improvement of the bearded irises was impossible, or at least improbable, unless new species with new characteristics could be found to use as parents. Since he could not leave his teaching to travel, Foster arranged with missionaries in Asia Minor to be on the lookout for new types of irises. They sent him many plants, good, bad and indifferent. A few of the good ones were so good that in about a decade they revolutionized the whole concept of bearded irises.

The plants came without labels and were given the names of the places where they had been found. Which are species is still unknown. I. cypriana and I. trojana were supposed to be species; I. mesopotamica named later by Dykes, may have been grown by Foster under another name. What was perhaps his most important plant came from the district of Amasia and was christened Amas, while similar or perhaps identical plants received other names from other importers. Nobody knows exactly what species or forms were used to produce the varieties originated by Foster or by others to whom he sent plants or who received them from independent sources.

After Foster died in 1907, Robert Wallace introduced a few of his best under the names of 'Caterina', 'Crusader', 'Kashmir White', etc. At almost the same time, Wallace introduced 'Halo' and 'Neptune', seedlings raised by George Yeld, a Yorkshire schoolmaster and a close friend of Foster. One or two of these varieties of Yeld's had been offered for sale a half dozen years before by a nursery in York and had apparently been ignored by buyers. Wallace made them famous.

Across the channel in France the famous two-century-old firm of Vilmorin, Andrieux et Cie sent out with less noise and fanfare their varieties 'Alcazar' and 'Oriflamme' which were worthy contemporaries of the Foster and the Yeld seedlings. Most of these reached the United States just before our country entered World War I. It was with the threat of war hanging over our heads that we Americans had thrust upon us the first of the great deluge of the new race of irises. The plants had taller stems, better branching, and larger flowers. Some lacked substance and quickly wilted in our hot sun. Some were shy bloomers. Others did not like our wet weather and were susceptible to soft rot. But with all their faults they were sensational acquisitions to our gardens and for our hybridizers.

American growers at once began to use them for breeding. The first to do so perhaps were Grace Sturtevant, E. B. Williamson, and J. Marion Shull. Bertrand Farr seems not to have used them, although he continued to introduce fine varieties until his death in 1924.

In England at the beginning of the war, two more schoolmasters, W. R. Dykes of Godalming, and Sir Arthur Hort of Harrow, were busily making crosses, as was A. J. Bliss, a retired engineer living in a little village in Devon. Amos Perry, of Enfield, having once abandoned irises, had taken them up again. In France, the Vilmorins at Verriere, just outside of Paris, had recently produced Ambassadeur, their greatest masterpiece. On account of the war they did not publicize it but built up stock for later introduction. Lionel Millet of nearby Bourg-la-Reine, had cataloged his masterpiece, Souvenir De Mme Gaudichau, but had not sold any" plants. In the south, at Balaruc-les-Bains, Ferdinand Denis, a retired manufacturer, had named various hybrids and turned over two of them, Mme Claude Monet and Mlle Schwartz, to nurserymen for introduction. None of these varieties reached America until just before the founding of the American Iris Society in 1920.

The story continues in "The World of Irises" chapter 3; The Drama of Iris Development

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

-- BobPries - 2015-10-26
Topic revision: r24 - 24 Jan 2021, WayneMesser
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