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Historic Remontant Irises

by Clarence Mahan, Virginia 1989

[Gibson Girl – Flora Zenor – Rameses See gallery for credit and full varietal info.]

Shall we ever see Autumn Sunset again? This old ‘red’ blend out of Rosy Wings X Rameses, registered in 1939 by E.G. Lapham, appears in the genealogy of some of our best and most dependable modern reblooming irises, such as Immortality, Earl of Essex, and Queen Dorothy. Is someone still growing it? Will someone be growing it twenty years from now? What a shame if it is lost forever.

And how about Morning Splendor? Considered the most splendid dark red purple iris in existence when introduced by J. Marion Shull in 1923, it was one of the first American bred irises out of the species Iris Trojana (the renowned Lent A. Williamson was the pollen parent), won international fame and awards, and soared to the top of the popularity polls conducted by the newly formed American Iris Society. Morning Splendor did not rebloom in cold climate areas, but threw an occasional autumn stalk in warmer areas. Crossed with King Tut it produced Autumn Flame, which is in the background of such modern beauties as Corn Harvest, Harvest of Memories, Spirit of Memphis, Grace Thomas, Jennifer Rebecca, and Earl of Essex. Through another line, three generations back, it can be found in the ancestry of one of the best red rebloomers of the 1980’s, Gideon Victorious. But where can Morning Splendor be found?

The long awaited Historical Iris Preservation Society (HIPS) is poised to become a reality with the publication of proposed bylaws, establishment of a regular publication to be edited by Anne Lowe, creation of a nominating committee, and formal election of permanent officers. With the Reblooming Iris Society (RIS) now leading all AIS sections in membership, perhaps it can also lead the way in collaborating with the new organization to ensure preservation of historical rebloomers–at least those rebloomers which have not already been lost. What is an historical reblooming iris? I am not going to get into a moot argument about whether the cutoff date is 1950, or 1945, or 1939, etc.. .with the type of progress iris hybridizers have made over the past five decades, an iris introduced last year can quickly disappear from gardens as improvements rapidly come on the market. It does seem to me, however, that there are two reasons a remontant iris might be considered important historically. First, those irises which are mentioned in historical iris literature as having reblooming tendencies, or which we know were grown specifically because they were prone to rebloom, surely merit saving for posterity. Second, an iris which has been an important ancestor of modern rebloomers, whether it was a noted rebloomer in its day or not, should be viewed as an important historical rebloomer.

Examples of the first type of historically important remontants would be the Iris biflora mentioned by Gerarde (if we could ever determine what iris he described,) Allies, Mrs. Alan Gray, Crimson King, Kochii, Gracchus, and Nepalensis, the most commonly mentioned “autumn blooming” irises in the years before AIS was founded; and Autumn King, Jean Siret, Lieutenant de Chavagnac, Autumn Queen, Ultra, Polar King, Better Autumn King, September Morn, Autumn Elf, Southland, Jane Krey, Martie Everest, and Sangreal, to name some of the remontants most widely grown in the twenties and thirties.

It is more than likely that some heated discussions could ensue if we tried to get consensus on which irises are important in an historical sense because of their famous reblooming progeny. There are, however, some irises that most, if not all, of us will agree upon. The first that comes to mind is Gibson Girl. This great “progenitor” of reblooming irises appears all over the pedigree charts of modern, dependable reblooming cultivars, e.g. Violet Miracle, Immortality (through both I Do and English Cottage), Radford Red, Gideon Victorious, Earl of Essex, Spirit of Memphis, Harvest of Memories, Lemon Reflection – to name just a few.

Others that I would suggest have earned designation as meritorious “stud” irises for modern rebloomers would include Autumn Flame, Joseph’s Mantle, Flora Zenor, Autumn Twilight, Autumn Sensation, October Shadows, Autumn Snowdrift, Green Dragon, Fall Fairy, Autumn Elf, Grande Baroque, Memphis Lass, Polar King, Replicata, Western Hills, Rainbow Gold, August Gold, Leora Kate, Fall Gold, Radiant, Welch H503, I. pumila Schect, Echo Valley, Savage, Lovely Again, Dore, Rameses, Fall Majesty, and Happy Birthday… for a start! Which cultivars would you like to add to this list?

For sake of discussion, if you could name only five irises, which would you say were the most important “stud” irises in the development of modern rebloomers? After learning what others have to say I might change my mind but I would like to suggest these: Autumn Elf, Gibson Girl, October Shadows, Autumn Sunset, and Grande Baroque.

Shall we let the important historical reblooming irises disappear in the manner of so many of the wonderful roses of the last century? I am suggesting that we need to act now to keep this from happening.

[Please see corresponding gallery photos for credit and full varietal information.This article is from Vol. 2 Issue 1, Spring 1989 issue of ROOTS.]
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