One of my first experiences with Louisiana irises was when I was a teenager in Massachusetts, growing a rather large collection of them on the protected west side of my parents house and heavily mulched for the winter with leaves and pine boughs. Two of the most impressive ones in that group were two brilliant reds: William McGarvey's 'Devil'sAdvocate' (1972) and Preston Hale's 'Red Dazzler' (1969). Although 'Red Dazzler' is still available, I would love to find 'Devil'sAdvocate' as it had marvelously round petals, much better than any other fulvas I have seen since, and it also rebloomed in October in Mass. Maybe one of our readers still grows the plant? Anyway, these reds were like nothing else in irisdom and they were very intriguing to me. Unfortunately, academics and career prevented me from capitalizing on these as hybridizing objects.
As an undergraduate at Clark University, I began analyzing pigments in irises; blossoms of 'Red Dazzler' were among those used in the study. Unlike most bearded iris, pigment extracts from 'Red Dazzler' gave a second prominent band of anthocyanin pigment called ensatin (a red purple malvidin glycoside), in addition to the delphanin (a blue-purple delphinidin glycoside) that all the bearded irises had. The same pigment was found in the "red" Siberian irises as well, although by LA iris standards Siberian reds are, at best, a red- purple color. In the Louisiana iris reds, the presence of the red- purple pigment ensatin overlaying a yellow base color gave the visual effect of red in these LA irises. In the red Siberian's there was no yellow pigment present to overlay and the red-purple color was as close to red as they could approach.
Several years ago, after a twenty- year lapse, I saw my first red LA's again and decided these should be one of my major breeding projects. After assembling a collection of all the best reds at the time, my initial project was to cross the best reds with the best dark purples in order to obtain red-blacks, similar to the red-black tall bearded iris 'Edenite.' Ben Hager's 'Caju Cookery' (1989) was chosen as the red parent as it had the best color and form of the ones then available. The cross that gave 'Red Velvet Elvis' (Vaughn 96) was actually my first serious LA cross in 20 years. A good example of the Vaughn luck! 'Jeri' (Bertinot 84), the red-violet parent of 'Elvis,' had a red grandparent and that may have helped as none of the other combinations of dark purples with 'Cajun Cookery' gave anything resembling 'Elvis.' Most of these were red-purples, essentially like the red Siberian irises; ensatin was present but not enough yellow to make the right combination for red.
For some reason, my next step in this line was to outcross 'Elvis' to very dark purples and not reds. This resulted in a number of lovely irises, one of which was registered as 'Bayou Borsch' (1996) 'Extraordinaire' (Dunn, 90). Several outstanding ones from a cross of "Charles Amy" (Goula, not registered) crossed to 'Elvis' are still under evaluation and are being much used in crosses. One real red of very nice form and color did come from a cross of 'Elvis' and 'Grace Duhon' (Haymon 87), but 'Grace' has a red parent behind her too. This red seedling from 'Grace' and 'Elvis' is being evaluated now as a possible introduction. It is the only red I have obtained in this 'Elvis' X dark purple breeding. Of course, what I had done in outcrossing to dark purples was to eliminate the yellow background color needed to produce the red effect. They were pretty irises but they were not red either. Of course the dark purples had other traits that I wanted to incorporate into the 'Elvis' line, notably the ruffling of 'Extraordinaire' and 'Far and Away' (Dunn 91), so the seedlings from these matings will certainly be useful down the road in getting better reds and red- blacks. Already last season an outstanding deep maroon with white petal edges and heavy ruffling bloomed from a cross involving 'Bayou Borsch.'
Sometimes I am a bit slow in realizing what is going on-as the season goes by so quickly that you lose track of what you're doing in the crossing. I call this my "auto pilot mode," where I make crosses but not all of them are exactly what I want! This year I am better prepared, however, as I have gathered a number of the best reds again, and the plan this bloom season is to cross all of the best reds with 'Elvis' or 'Elvis' children and grandchildren. That way, I will keep all the ingredients for red together. Two years ago I crossed 'Elvis' with Mary Dunn's 'Hail Mary' (1999) and its sibling 'Southern Expression' (2000). I thought both were nice reds with very good branching and plant habits. I did make a cross between 'Elvis' and 'Southern Expression' and these were rowed out late last season but at least a couple of them might bloom. Anyway, 12 years after 'Elvis' first bloomed, I finally believe I am back on track toward creating a good many quality red LA's. Come by and see what progress I'm making.
Editor's Note: Kevin Vaugh is a retired "weed scientist" having worked many years for the US Dept of Agriculture in MS. He is a former president of the Society for Louisiana Irises. A few years ago Kevin moved to the Portland, OR, area and continues his hybridzing efforts with every plant he can get his hands on!
Since this article, which first appeared in the SLI Newsletter in the Spring 2004 edition, Kevin has hybridized and introduced another "reddish" Louisiana Iris, 'Cajun Hot Sauce' in 2009.