The DeBaillon Medal for Louisiana irises was the first specialty award created for a single group of irises and added to the American Iris Society awards system. It became official in January of 1949, when judges were appointed by the Regional Vice-President of the AIS. There was little or no special training given to judges at this time and certainly none in judging Louisianas. As a result few judges voted the early ballots for Louisianas and those who did might have seen very few of those listed. Those of us in south Louisiana often had calls from judges in other areas asking for suggestions about voting! The first dozen DeBaillon winners were all collected or hybridized by growers living in Louisiana.
It is of interest that soon after our award went into use other specialty iris groups followed with an award of their own. By 1953 there were three such awards: the Caparne Award for dwarf bearded, the Morgan Award for Siberians, and the Eric Nies Award for spuria irises. Other specialty awards have been added over the years and there are now about 15 such awards voted by the accredited AIS Judges. There is always a question about the voting of these specialty awards. Few if any judges are qualified to vote for all the specialty groups and yet there are some who do!
The award was established in 1948 when the name of the Society was changed from the Mary Swords DeBaillon Louisiana Iris Society to the Society for Louisiana Irises, but it was not official until 1949 and did not appear on the AIS awards ballot until 1950. The officers and board of SLI agreed to name the first recipient of the award an iris collected by Mrs. DeBaillon and named for her by Caroline Dormon. Because of certain testing requirements the listing of the award did not appear on the 1949 ballot, so selection of a winner was done by telephone calls to judges in Region 10. W. B. MacMillan's 'Bayou Sunset" was selected to win the award. Lillian Hall Trichel's 'Caddo' was thus the first winner of the award to be listed on the actual AIS ballot and voted by national judges in 1950.
During these early years many Louisiana irises collected in the wild were named and registered by the collector. Since it was possible for several people to collect the same iris, there was a chance for duplication. A test garden was set up in Lafayette, for growing collected irises for comparisons and this became a requirement for listing an iris on the ballot. As fewer people collected irises in later years, the test garden was abandoned.
The trophy for the award, a beautiful oblong bronze medal, has been given the hybridizer or collector of the winning iris since the award was started in 1948. [Since 1986 the award has been known as the DeBaillon Medal.] It was designed by Caroline Dormon, a Louisiana naturalist, writer and artist. She had also collected in south Louisiana and began hybridizing as early as the 1930's. The medals are furnished and paid for by SLI and are presented to the hybridizer of the winning iris at the annual AIS Convention Awards Banquet.
Many of the early winners were from north Louisiana, where there was an early organized group of iris growers and the largest number of AIS judges in the area. This began to change about 1960 when hybridizers from. south Louisiana and a few from California and Arkansas began introducing and distributing their cultivars. Most of the early winners had unknown parentage or came from collected or chance seedlings. 'Her Highness,' the winner in 1959, was known to have been collected by William Levingston of Lake Charles, La. From1960 to 1970 there were still award winners with unknown parentage, such as 'Frances Elizabeth'** by Sam Rix of New Zealand and crosses of two seedlings, such as MacMillan's 'Black Widow' and Lenora Mathew's 'Dixie Dusk'.
Charles W. Arny began turning out a large number of registered and introduced irises by 1960, with many DeBaillon winners during the 1970's. He won five awards in a row from 1972 to 1977, having won two awards in the 1960's. Arny won medals later with the ruffled white 'Clara Goula' in 1982 and the bicolor 'Easter Tide' in 1983. Both are still popular garden irises after more than 20 years.
Frank Chowning of Little Rock, Arkansas, had begun collecting and hybridizing Louisiana irises prior to 1940, but had done little to promote them. His collection of species and seedlings filled a lot behind his house and he had become active in SLI during the late 1940's. Two of his small yellow seedlings, called 'Delta Country' and 'Dixie Deb' were widely distributed and often mistaken for each other, but we believe 'Dixie Deb' won the DeBaillon in 1967! It is perhaps grown by more people than any other named Louisiana iris, as it is indestructible and a delight for flower arrangers. I planted some at my place about 40 years ago and still have it showing up each year to bloom.
Chowning registered about a half dozen of his seedlings during the 1970's and gave them to Melrose Gardens to introduce and market. Melrose Gardens put a full picture of 'Ann Chowning' on the front of their catalog, and it took the country by storm. It not only won the DeBaillon, but won the Walther Cup given by AIS. Chowning believed in good promotion for his irises, which meant sending them to known growers and nurseries across the country, taking them to AIS Convention sites, and planting them in convention tour gardens. He also showed up at all the conventions to talk up Louisianas irises, especially his own! Chowning won three medals in a row.
There has been no single leading hybridizer since this time; however, a few have won on multiple occasions: Mary Dunn, Joseph Mertzweiller, Henry Rowlan, and Marvin Granger. The only out-of-country winner for many years was Sam Rix of New Zealand, who won the award in 1965. The iris, 'Frances Elizabeth', was never popular outside of California, where it had been sent to Ben Hager at Melrose Gardens. It was probably voted by the large number of judges in that region as against judges from other regions. It never became a popular iris.* Recently, with the number of outstanding cultivars coming out of Australia, there will be many more winners from other than the United States. 'Hot and Spicy' by Heather Pryor, winner for 2004, is a good example.
The latest hybridizer to win the DeBaillon, Kevin Vaughn of Miss., captured the medal in 2005 for 'Red Velvet Elvis.' That is Dr. Vaughn's first time to win the DeBaillon.
Voting is often split between areas of the country depending on dealers and distribution. There are many more judges now voting for Louisianas, so one little group of growers no longer controls the vote. Louisianas now show up at most conventions and garden tours and are entered in many iris shows. Although a judge is not to base a selection on a show entry, it does influence them. Bloom on Louisianas at AIS conventions will double the number of judges voting the Louisiana ballot and a good showing of a cultivar will almost guarantee a winner. I now wonder what influence two of our recent innovations will have on voting the awards ballot. One is the check list now on computer disc in color, and the other is the color photographs of our irises in the Fleur de Lis. This, like the outstanding show entries, will certainly influence, but should not replace growing the irises or seeing them growing in a garden or in several gardens.
Those of us who have grown Louisianas for many years know that some varieties do not grow well, others do not bloom every season, some do not increase, some fade to a poor color, a few do not fully open, some have a minimum of buds, and some have poor substance. The faults are endless, but there is no way a judge can see this in a picture!
The confusion of names in the 2003 voting was unfortunate, but easy to understand. Joe Mertzweiller's 'Cajun Sunrise' had won the DeBaillon in 2000 by twice the number of votes as the first runner-up. But unless you grew it or talked about it often, the name of 'Cajun Sunset' by Granger sounded much the same. It points out the problem of iris names and also the accuracy of voting (or lack of it!). Research on the iris found that it had had limited distribution, was not currently being sold by any dealer, and probably had not been seen by any judges! It had, however, come through the other classes of the awards system, so it was obviously confused in name years ago. Marvin Granger died before this came to light, so no medal was given and the incident will remain as a good lesson to AIS Judges!
*Editor's Note: This article was written for a Louisiana Iris Society of America Newsletter and appeared in a 1982 issue.
**Editor's Note: In 2001 'Frances Elizabeth', the Louisiana iris mentioned, returned to commerce in the United States, after having been lost for many years. The iris, which would be considered to have good form today, is a light rusty red color. It is available from Iris City Gardens (see commercial listings) with a portion of the proceeds going to SLI. Their online catalog, which contains a picture of 'Frances Elizabeth', is available at www.iriscitygardens.com