Preserving Kleinsorge Irisesby Mike Unser
I didn’t expect to end up with a collection of 700 historic irises. I just wanted to clean up some weedy flower beds at a house I was renting. Ugly, badly overgrown with blackberries and grass, the beds held just a few rhodies, old roses and lilacs struggling to survive in their neglect. Having wonderful memories of my grandmothers’ gardens from my childhood to guide me I began making plans for flower borders, but my inexperience combined with terrible soil and a lack of funds made this a challenge.
I started collecting seeds and starts of various common flowers from neighbors and from escaped plants along the alleys I walked thru going to and from work, getting an idea of what would live in my poor soil and tough conditions. I noticed about this time that my neighbor had an iris bed badly overgrown with grass that was being mowed over about the edges and slowly becoming lawn. Hidden in the grass were dozens of rhizomes bravely growing onward even with fans barely a few inches high, always getting clipped during the summer. I carefully rescued several of these and relocated them to one of my beds. The next spring I fell in love.
A rainbow of colors bloomed for me – fuchsia, gold & red, rich purple and light blue – something clicked. Many of my grandmother’s flowers were favorites; lilacs, peonies, tiger lilies and bleeding hearts still give me a thrill, but nothing like these irises did. This dormant love had been reawakened, bringing memories of the tall purples in Grandma Westphal’s carefully tended perennial beds and the riot of colors edging Grandma Unser’s vegetable garden. There was one I remembered most – a lovely sparkling rust brown bitone that grew in a huge clump at the corner of the strawberry patch. The quest for a brown iris was on.
The internet revolution was just then taking off and in my attempt to learn more about gardening I stumbled upon Gardenweb.com, where I began swapping plants with people all over the country. Of course irises were a big focus and over the next few years I ended up with dozens of varieties from many generous folks, discovering along the way a distinct preference for the old ones, with their clean simple lines. I chanced upon a copy of the 1941 Cooley’s Gardens catalog on the auction site eBay and picked it up hoping to put a few names to my pass-along beauties, and that’s when I found them – the amazing varieties of Dr. Kleinsorge. An obsession was born.
Right on the cover was the wonderful Grand Canyon, resplendent in shades of dusky plum and smoky fuchsia, and each page brought another treat; Old Parchment, Arctic, Aztec Copper, and Far West. More lovely blends and browns than I even knew existed! I had to have them, and almost immediately I began combing the websites and catalogs of iris growers looking for any varieties for sale. Shortly thereafter a half dozen or so were in the ground and I was eagerly anticipating seeing them in person. They did not disappoint.
Dr. Rudolph E. Kleinsorge began his iris hybridizing career in a small garden in Beaverton, Oregon, in the 1920’s. Cooley’s Gardens introduced his very first iris, Klamath, in 1929, and a long friendship with this garden and family was begun, with Cooley’s introducing all but a handful of the 100 varieties the good doctor created in his long career, ending with Buckaroo in 1962. Along the way his varieties were met with acclaim and awards, with the exquisite Daybreak nearly winning the Dykes Medal in 1946. He was best known for his wonderful blends and especially his brown toned varieties.
I was fortunate to have become friends with Laetitia Munro thru the Gardenweb Iris forum and soon she was helping me locate varieties, with many coming from the Rebert’s collection. I joined HIPS about that time as well and after contributing to a report in ROOTS on members most wanted varieties I made the acquaintance of Cameron Hall, who kindly shared several starts of rarities from his collection that are no longer available for sale. In the past few years Phil Edinger has done the same from his amazing collection, filling in the beds with varieties I had long thought extinct. I am deeply grateful for the wisdom, experience and plants they have shared with me.
With such generous help I’m currently up to 36 varieties, with a few more trickling in each year. Some, of course, aren’t correct. Golden Crown opened recently and Drat! It was that cute little Romeo instead, and while a gold/brown bicolor that opened is quite pleasing it’s not the Toast An Honey it was sold as. Back to the hunt for both. The long anticipated Far West turned out to be Treasure Island – a thrill if it hadn’t already been in the garden – while Prince of Orange disappeared during the last move. I have several lovely browns, such as El Paso and Buckskin, but none are that shimmering rusty brown bitone I remember so clearly from grandma’s garden.
The search for Tobacco Road still goes on, though probably in vain, as no one has seen this classic beauty in many years. Once the most widely acclaimed iris in the US and parent of over 200 varieties, it unfortunately had a tendency to rot and is likely lost. Perhaps it is tucked away in some west coast garden somewhere. There’s always hope. We still do have with us about half of the Dr.’s creations and many won’t suffer the fate as Tobacco Road. It would be hard to imagine the loss of Grand Canyon or Sunset Blaze, with their extremely vigorous growth habit. Both are widely distributed and commonly found in historic collections. I couldn’t again be without the huge flowers and wonderful cherry tones of Maroon Damask, nor the richness of Black And Gold with its deep colors and beautiful details, and I’ll be sharing these and many others with friends as the years go on. Some varieties are prone to bloomout, but knowing this it is easy to watch them and leave the bloomstalks uncut until new fans appear in late summer.
It appears this may be a collection that it takes a lifetime to accumulate, and I’m okay with that. That little spark of memory has grown into an abiding source of joy and a delicious sense of anticipation each spring as May approaches. Other hybridizers have since caught my eye and the number of varieties from Dave Hall, Grace Sturtevant and Goos & Koenemann continue to proliferate about the iris beds. I’m increasingly drawn to Lloyd Austin’s Space-agers as well. But my first love will always be the Kleinsorge varieties. I’ll happily play caretaker for them over the years until someone else falls in love and I can pass them along as others did for me. Along this chain we’ll preserve this beauty for future generations.