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On the Importance of Iris Preservation

- by Mike Unser, Wa. 2005
tobacco road

[From Cooley’s Gardens catalog for 1942]

Even as new varieties overwhelm us in their abundance there are many reasons for preserving iris varieties of the past. It is hard to decide which reason is most compelling – even more difficult to decide which varieties deserve preservation, with as many opinions as there are admirers. I’ll try to explore a few of the reasons here.

Most prominently there are the sentimental reasons that drive many of us to preserve irises that they knew from childhood and have been passed down thru our families. These varieties are kept for the memories they evoke and are often the most loved and treasured of all the irises in the garden. Lent A. Williamson is one my grandmother grew that I now have in my garden. With its hardiness and vigor there is no danger it will be lost to history, but I treasure it just the same. Others preserve irises created by an enterprising family member of the past or that they received from a friend now gone. They are a living scrapbook of our lives.

snow flurryThere are also varieties we seek to preserve because of their importance to the history of iris development. Many from the early 20th century fall into this category. Dominion for instance was the progenitor of most of todays TBs, as is Snow Flurry. The importance of these two irises in the advancement of iris form cannot be understated. Many of our most prominent hybridizers have built their lines on these foundations. These and many others should always be preserved for future generations due to their enormous contributions, and to remind us of the distance irises have traveled to become the forms that grace the pages of todays catalogs. I think it is important to have a living record of iris development that folks can grow and experience in person, to see how the flower was changed thru time by the selections and choices of iris lovers. It is one thing to see photos and slides of irises thru the years and quite another to have a garden bed overflowing with blooms that really brings the whole iris experience closer and more personal for the viewer.

More than ever before genetics is playing a key role in planning and creating new iris varieties. Modern science allows us to unlock the secrets in iris DNA and to use them in breeding for new colors and patterns, and in understanding the ones we already have. Who knows how far this progress will take us? And who can say what old varieties may hold a clue in their genes that answers a question we have yet to even ask? If they are not here for future study that genetic record will be lost, and perhaps a key gene combination with it.

Old varieties have proven their hardiness, vigor and disease resistance just by being survivors. Many breeders are incorporating them into modern lines to increase these qualities in modern forms and we should work to ensure they will be here for future use as well. But even historic irises that are tender should be preserved if they are important. For instance Tobacco Road, one of the most famous irises and a major color break for its day, is a very poor grower and may already be lost to history. It may be the most extensively used iris parent in history, having almost 200 registered progeny, yet it is not to be found in commercial sale and has not been heard of in private gardens in many years. More attention to preserving and spreading this iris about in its preferred climes could have prevented this.


While it is important to preserve historic irises with their names intact I also feel it is important to preserve those that have lost their names as well. Noids, as they are often referred to (a combination of ‘no I.D.’), may turn out to be something significant which has been lost. The case of Golden Eagle comes to mind. [Ed. – See “Lost Treasure Discovered”] A creation of Dave Hall from the early 1940’s it was used extensively in breeding programs and is in the pedigree of many later irises. It was lost for many years before turning up in the garden of Roger Nelson in Oregon in 2000 being grown as a noid.

The primary purpose of the Historic Iris Preservation Society has been to identify important irises from history that are in danger of being lost and help to preserve them for future generations to enjoy. We accomplish this by raising awareness of historic irises and their importance. We attempt to widely distribute historic varieties as well, thru society sales and by highlighting commercial sources, in order to ensure that varieties are widely grown and loved. Many HIPS members feel that we should be paying more attention to varieties of the 60’s and 70’s which are falling out of circulation and efforts to raise awareness of the need for preservation of these varieties is more important than ever.

I also think we should be encouraging preservation on an international scale. The long history of irises in Europe and in the lands ‘down under’ have left as rich a legacy as American varieties of the 20th century have and deserve conservation and appreciation. Many members of HIPS do import these varieties when possible for preservation here, but efforts in their native lands should also be made. Perhaps in the future HIPS will have affiliates within the local Iris Societies of these nations to focus on preservation efforts in their locales. Most especially in places not usually associated with iris production as France, England and America are – I think particularly of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, which have a long history of iris cultivation and advancement that many in the north are not aware of. Russia and the former eastern block nations may also have unknown histories of iris developments to share with the world.

The most important reason for me in iris preservation is simply for the sheer beauty of historic irises. There is a certain grace and charm in the old varieties that I do not see in most modern ones. A subtle translucence that allows the light to play thru the blossom seems to be lost with the heavy substance of todays forms. A certain quaint charm missing from these tall and sturdy varieties that yesterdays smaller, daintier flowers had in abundance. Taste in flowers is as varied among growers as taste in any other area is, and fortunately there are folks that dearly love the old varieties. Thanks to the efforts of these dedicated gardeners there are historic irises being preserved for future generations to enjoy and learn from. I hope you’ll join us in our efforts, and locate, identify and preserve historic irises in your own garden.

[This article was written at the request of a member of the New Zealand iris society. They are trying to increase awareness of historic irises and the importance of preserving them – especially the work of their local hybridizers, such as Jean Stevens.]
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