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Visit to Mr. A. J. Bliss

Morwellham, Tavistock, Devon (June 7 - 9, 1919)
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Arthur J BlissMr. R. W. Wallace and I left London Saturday, June 4th at 10:50 on the L. & S. W. Railway, and reached Tavistock, which lies west of Exeter, at 4:30. From here we drove by automobile through the beautiful hilly Devon country five miles to the little deserted village of Morwellham on the banks of the Tamar River. Here Mr. Bliss lives, along with his flowers and his books, in the old “Ship Inn.” He welcomed us most cordially, and insisted upon our having tea at once. Then he and his brother who was visiting him for a few weeks, conducted us about 200 yards to the little allotment which is his garden. It was a long walk for Mr. Bliss as he had sprained his ankle a few weeks before and it was still very painful.

The allotment covers a bit of ground hardly more than 100 x 100 feet. A small portion is given up to narcissus and gladiolus, and all the rest to iris. Mr. Bliss has but few named varieties of these. In fact he has retained only those which are useful for breeding or for reference in connection with past crosses. Among the first of them were one or two each of: Amas, Pallida Dalmatica, Trojana Superba, Assaurez, Cengialti, Maori King, Flavescens, Mrs. H. Darwin, Mme. Chereau, Thorbecke, Cordelia, Perfection and Jacquiniana. The rest of the plot contained only seedlings of Mr. Bliss’, usually only one of each variety, planted sometimes according to year of crossing and sometimes according to number of cross, but never arranged for color effect, so that the whole presented a very confused jumble to a stranger, and made it difficult to compare varieties.

I desired, of course, to see those varieties I had already seen at Colchester so as to get them a little more thoroughly in my mind. The plants were all full of bloom, but owing to the fact that they had not been divided for years and were very crowded, the flowers were not as large as at Colchester. They were, however, sufficiently large to show how great was their advance over the old varieties.

Next we saw a lot of numbered seedlings of earlier or contemporary crossings which were not considered good enough to name (though many were better than any named variety in general commerce) but which were kept for some certain point which might prove valuable in breeding – a particularly good stem, fine form, or unique color. There must have been several hundreds of these seedlings mixed in with all the other plants, and they were very confusing.

Mr. Bliss then led us on to some of his best things, some already named, but most still under number. I will enumerate these by sections.

Pallida Section:

Lancelot. A self reddish violet.
Tamar. Darker Her Majesty.
Rosalind. Larger Mrs. Alan Grey.
Grenville. Bluer Albert Victor.
F. 103. Improved Mrs. Alan Grey.
G. 89 (15). Believed by Mr. Bliss to be his best Pallida, even better than Rodney or Drake.
E. 228 (1).
G. 84-87 (15). A larger Morwell but not as good.

bliss irisesVariegata Section:

Glitter. An improved Abou Hassan.
R. 194 (T) 13. Of Marshmallow type with reddish brown falls.
G. 187 (4). Iris King without the margin in the falls, and very free.
G. 188 (15). Iris King type with broad margin on the falls.
G. 189 (5). Rich butter yellow standards.
R. 153 (15). Very distinct and unique coloring. Minnehaha the closest comparison.

Amoena Section:

Samite. A pure cream white self.
Berenice. Pure white.
G. 189 (G) (10). A greatly improved Rhein Nixe.

Plicata Section:

About 40 seedlings of R. 161 covered the entire range of Plicata form and coloring, surpassing all our older named varieties. It is very difficult to choose between them. My own choice was for numbers 10, 40, and 68. Mr. Wallace preferred others and Mr. Bliss still others. I understand Mr. Bliss will test them further, and after further judging will send a small number to Colchester for further trial before naming.

Neglecta Section:

Dorman. A very free red-purple bi-color.
Du Guesclin. A bluer Monsignor.
Titan. Of Dominion race.
R. 115 (1). Of Dominion race, taller and redder.
R. 123 (11). Of Dominion race with deeper standards.
R. 118 (b) (2). Of Dominion race, taller and more graceful but flower is not as perfect.

Squalens Section:
R. 115 (2). Dominion race, larger Gules.
R. 149 (2). Dominion race. Larger flower, but lacks the substance and richness of Dominion.
R. 198 (z) 2. Improved Prosper Laugier.
R. 147 (7). A small but very red Squalens.
These I have noted above are exceedingly fine things, but it does not follow at all that they are the very best which were seen. It is vary difficult in three days to mentally digest such a lot of new seedlings and to judge them intelligently. I have tried to put down those which impressed me the most. Mr. Bliss himself rates others higher.

I noted also several varieties as signposts of what the future might bring. One of these was a Plicata with pale yellowish ground, probably not good enough for a garden plant but, as Mr. Bliss likes to say, “a valuable ancestor.” Another distinct break was a Plicata that flowered on May 19th, a week or more before the first Pallidas and it was long finished blooming before we arrived. Still another was a Squalens which opened its first flowers June 9th. It would seem that these two might lead us to earlier and later varieties in the future. Mr. Bliss’s greatest ambition is to give us a crimson iris and a whole race of Dominions of different colors, but he holds out little hope for the present. He says that after twenty years he “has only got a few shades nearer to crimson than where he started with Assaurez, and Dominion is unfortunately proving a very shy seeder, which makes progress slow. He is also working for a large yellow Pallida and a large yellow self Variegata the color of Aurea.

The most noticeable thing about Mr. Bliss is his extreme thoughtfulness and care in which he plans out his crosses beforehand, how he plans for years ahead to create a certain type of flower and how he keeps records of everything that he has done so that he can tell not only what expected results he has achieved but also what unexpected forms have developed. He has not a single label in his garden, but has each plant marked on a plan, and he knows the position of nearly every seedling without reference to the plan at all. He records when his seedlings first bloom but leaves all judging until the second flowering when he describes each variety very carefully, noting all good and bad points.

Living alone in this little out-of-the-world village, free from outside distractions and seeing no other flowers during the iris season, he is able to concentrate to a remarkable degree upon the work in hand, and the results from the few old named varieties he has used are little short of marvelous. The stock of his new varieties is still small and it will necessarily be many years before they have become widely known. When they do become known, however, I feel sure that they will displace at least 90 per cent of the varieties we are growing in our gardens today.

~ Reprinted from AISB #7, January, 1923.
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