Iris fulva x brevicaulis 'God's Gift'
A natural hybrid that came up in our ditch some years ago...
“She comes in colors everywhere
She combs her hair
She's like a rainbow.
Combing colors in the air
She comes in colors.”
Iris: Greek goddess of the rainbow, and a messenger of the gods . . . and/or . . . a Northern Hemisphere plant genus containing over 200 species, five of which are native to Louisiana.
Never has a plant genus been more aptly named, for not only is there a massive variety of flower color amongst the different species of Iris, but also a dizzying color array within each species.
Thanks in no small part to the Mighty Muddy Mississippi River and its brown, sticky unending supply of alluvium, Louisiana was proclaimed the “Iris Center of the Universe” by Dr. J. K. Small, Curator of the New York Botanical Gardens back in the 1920s. Small first glimpsed Louisiana irises from the window of a train, igniting a love affair which brought him back here on many occasions, collecting, researching, and naming some 77 color forms and natural hybrids – most of which placidly grew in the general vicinity of New Orleans alone! Back then, irises grew in wild profusion throughout the marshes and swamps of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, and Orleans parishes, literally surrounding the city of New Orleans. There are even early 20th century references regarding color forms being collected off Frenchman Street. Small's main “honey hole,” though, was the Bayou Sauvage area, off Gentilly Ridge – presently encompassed by the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge. Sadly, few if any iris colonies have survived the saltwater brought in there by Katrina.
Given to us by Rosemary Simms some years ago as, 'Briar Queen'
this one looks very similar to Small's Iris miraculosa, found (probably)
somewhere in lower Plaquemines parish in March 1927 by Ruth & Arthur Svihla
Back in those days, incredible color variation could be found within a single Iris species, and within a single “iris field.” Collectors were few back then, for most folks associated irises with black stinky mucky mud, and snakes and alligators.
By the mid-1930s, the Louisiana iris craze quickly migrated from New Orleans to Lafayette, where Mary Swords DeBaillon had already amassed the world's “most complete” color form collection in her North Lafayette yard. And even more importantly, the discovery of the “Super Fulvas,” aka “the Abbeville Reds” and/or “the Abbeville Yellows” from the Bayou Vermilion floodplain just south of Abbeville in 1938 by W. B. “Mac” MacMillan. More than any other “Louisiana iris” it was the “Abbevilles” that launched Louisiana iris hybridization into a global obsession, eventually amassing horticultural converts from New York to California and Japan to Australia. Yep,the Louisiana iris saga is one of the most fascinating stories in horticultural history.
One of the legendary 'Abbeville Reds' said to have come from MacMillan's own yard!
Given to us by the intrepid Tyrone Foreman
Mary DeBaillon's amazing collection, coupled with the discovery of the “Abbevilles,” led to the formation of the Mary Swords DeBaillon Iris Society in 1941, soon known as the Society for Louisiana Irises, reserving Mary DeBaillon's name for the Mary Swords DeBaillon Medal, award for best-in-show at the Society's annual gatherings.
Iris 'Dixie Deb' an outstanding landscape iris
developed by Frank Chowning, Little Rock, Arkansas
Of Louisiana's five native iris species, the four which have contributed to the fantastic hybrid complex known today as “Louisiana irises” are the copper iris (Iris fulva), the short-stemmed iris (Iris brevicaulis), the anglepod blue-flag (Iris hexagona), and the large blue-flag (Iris giganicaerulea), the latter of which is truly endemic (found nowhere else in the wild) to coastal Louisiana. Around the same time that Dr. Small was making his discoveries around New Orleans, Tulane herpetologist/naturalist Percy Viosca became interested in the ecological underpinnings of these irises. Which species were growing where? Which were not? Why? In fact, prior to MacMillan's discovery of the Abbevilles (believed today to be natural hybrids between I. fulva and I. giganticaerulea), Viosca had predicted that such a find awaited in at least two geographical locales within coastal Louisana, where swamps (traditional home of I. fulva) and marshes (traditional home of I. giganicaerulea) possessing specific hydrological regimes intersected. Indeed, one of the places he described was within the Bayou Vermilion watershed just north of its outfall into Vermilion Bay – precisely where MacMillan found it.
Those of you who are not from Louisiana should understand that New Orleans and Lafayette/Abbeville are by no means the only places where Louisiana irises grow wild. They grow wild throughout much of our state, but nowhere more prolific than in our coastal zone: 3 million acres' worth of marshes & swamps; beat up badly by storms and industry, but still standing...
I could go on and on. Like so many Louisiana gardeners, I was smitten by Louisiana irises early on, and moreso from Viosca's ecological perspective. My interest still is in natural color variants and natural hybrids as opposed to human-made hybrids. Still, I'll readily gawk at any Louisiana iris I encounter, regardless of heritage.
an un-named blackish-purple dwarf I. brevicaulis
given to me (as a bribe...) by Dormon Hayden
From a conservation standpoint, it is the natural hybrids and color forms – those found in the wild by the first collectors – which are in most need of preservation. For the most part, the natural homes from which they were collected have been destroyed by development and/or salt-water intrusion by now. Secondly, from a horticultural landscaping perspective, the natural hybrids and color forms, along with the “straight species” themselves far out-perform the human-made hybrids in garden settings. Not only do the “naturals” self-propagate more easily, but they also live longer – almost indefinitely, in fact. These plants need to be ressurected by knowledgeable Louisiana iris folks and made available for plantings in parks, wildlife refuges, arboretums, botanical gardens, and private gardens everywhere -- but especially those in their original "homes" within the Louisiana coastal zone.
Iris 'Van Gough Blue' (my [definitely unregistered] name...)
a mysterious thing...can't remember who gave it to me....like a
"Super Brevicaulis'....very vigorous....long bloom season....evergreen foliage!
Any student of Louisiana irises would do well to read The Louisiana Iris a 1988 book by Marie Caillet and Joe Mertzweiller. Another publication, quite rare by now I'm sure, is the 1991 fiftieth anniversary publication of the Society for Louisiana Irises, simply entitled, Society for Louisiana Irises 1941-1991, edited by Joe Mertzweiller and published by Franklin Press, Baton Rouge. In it are reprints of J.K. Small's Louisiana iris articles published 1925-29 in the New York Botanical Gardens journal, Addisonia, along with very-cool watercolor plates (done by the Botanical Gardens' Mary Eaton) of some of Small's favorite “finds.”
And be sure to check out the Society's website (http://www.louisianas.org/). This year's annual meeting will be held April 19-22 in Shreveport.