Louisiana irises growing in New Zealand after being imported

In the beginning there was a garden. Two gardens, in fact. One, of moderate size in the outskirts of Auckland’s west, and the other larger, in a rural area on the North Shore of the city. Each belonged to an enthusiastic member of the New Zealand Iris Society, who each belonged to a different Group of the Society.  

It all started when like minds met and so began a friendship based on our mutual love of irises, with Louisiana irises being one of our particular interests. We went on to collect what could be found within New Zealand shores, with each of us buying different hybrids to avoid duplication. At that time, in the mid to late nineties, there was quite a number of newer Louisiana hybrids in the country. They had been imported from Australia, mainly cultivars from John Taylor and Heather Pryor, through Rainbow Ridge Nursery.The importing nursery subsequently closed, and the supply of new cultivars came to an end.

Meanwhile, we two discussed from time to time, the possibility of importing some newer varieties. At first we thinking only of bringing them in for ourselves, then progressed to thinking about setting up a Louisiana Iris nursery, to be able to offer something new to the members of our Society. Mostly it was just discussion, but when the time came in 2001 for Alistair and myself to leave our home in Auckland, the notion became more than just a possibility. We moved further south to Katikati, a small town in a region of New Zealand called the Bay of Plenty, named by Captain Cook on his voyage of discovery. It is not mis-named, for it is a fruit-growing area south of Auckland on the east coast of the North Island. It was not just a coincidence that our new property had excellent growing conditions for Louisiana irises, because the necessary criteria included good soil, plenty of water, some trees, and enough space to create a garden.

What we found was a property of six acres with two areas on a higher level either side of a lower flat area with a small stream running through it. One of the higher areas is home to a small avocado orchard, which slopes away at the bottom end to an open area which remains moist all year round, alongside the small stream. The soil is based on volcanic ash laid down in this region after the eruption which formed Lake Taupo in the Central North Island aeons ago. Therefore it is well-drained and acidic, and large willows along the stream banks provide some shelter. As it is on the eastern side of the nearby Kaimai Ranges, there is enough summer rainfall to keep the irises healthy and growing without irrigation.  

Louisiana irises after importing into New ZealandLouisiana Iris rhizomes after importingLouisiana iris rhizomes after undergoing quarantined in New ZealandLouisiana Irises after inspection by customsOne of the reasons for setting up this nursery was, as previously mentioned, the lack of new cultivars coming into New Zealand. The question was... Could we import? The answer was... Why not! By now it was mid 2004. The next step for our nursery was to gather together all the cultivars we were already growing and get them planted, and we used the stream banks for this. Then it was time to gather together the information we needed to import our new irises. After a suggestion from our friend Tom Dillard, we contacted Heather and Bernard Pryor of Iris Haven. Would they be willing to export irises to New Zealand? The answer was “Yes, of course”. Little did we know then what we were embarking upon. We pored over the Iris Haven catalogue and website, compiled our wish list, applied for our permit and prepared an iris bed.  

The permit was approved, the wish list confirmed and the irises were prepared for export. If it wasn’t for the determination and tenacity of Heather Pryor the events in this saga may never have happened, and it is very much thanks to her that we are up and running, because as we are all aware now, the rules for the importation of plants had been radically changed. We were faced with importing iris rhizomes under the heading of dormant bulbs. This meant that all green growth was to be removed. Imagine an evergreen plant denuded of all its foliage! Not only that, but they were to be treated with a range of chemicals in a regime of dipping procedures to comply with the regulations imposed by MAF in this country, and inspected before export and certified to that effect by AQUIS in Australia.

Heather undertook all this with great determination, and the irises were on their way. They arrived at Auckland Airport and were duly inspected. Because of the recent removal of all their growth, naturally there was some oozing of sap, and this was treated as suspicious by the MAF Quarantine Service. They were to be tested for disease. Nothing was found and they were cleared for collection, but by now it was the week before Christmas and they had been sitting in plastic wrap in boxes for over two weeks. They needed to be rescued!  

Rushed to Katikati, they were unwrapped, soaked for few days in a very weak solution of liquid fertiliser, and were now ready for planting in the new bed. To cut the rest of this part of the story short, they loved their new home and didn’t look back. The increase was such that we were able to offer a few in our late 2005 Inaugural List of cultivars for sale.  

So, should we do it again? Why not? However in the meantime, the goalposts had been moved. The import regulations had been changed, and iris rhizomes were no longer to be treated as dormant bulbs, but as plants. Would this mean that they would not have to be cut back? The answer was “no”, but not only that, they were now required to be held in quarantine on the property for two growing seasons. So, we set about establishing a quarantine site..... Fifty metres from any other irises, five metres from any woody plants, and ten from any herbaceous plants, excluding grass. Even though our property is comparatively large, that was not any easy task, and we just managed a space big enough that fulfilled the requirements. It was duly inspected and registered, and the next shipment was ordered. Once again, there was a new requirement. A new (and much more expensive) chemical was to be used for one of the dipping procedures.

Heather once again stepped into the breach, and tracked down the necessary chemical. She managed to obtain a very small amount of something usually only sold in bulk at great expense, and duly went through the procedures once more. This time however, one of the dips was not witnessed by an AQUIS inspector, and the certificate was therefore not signed. The irises would not be released to us. Yet another saga unfolded, involving the MAF and AQUIS heirarchy in Wellington and Canberra. Too much to relate here, but we did prevail, the irises were planted and inspected four times over ten months, and have now been cleared for entry into New Zealand. Once again, they grew extremely well, and we now have another forty additional cultivars in the country.  

Louisiana iris beds growing well after importing rhizomes from AustraliaLouisiana Iris bed in New ZealandAll this of course, involved considerable expense.... The irises themselves, the cost of treatments, shipping costs, inspection fees, the setting up of a quarantine site, more inspection fees and travel costs. Not only have we the expense to contend with, but also, as they have been termed by some,  the “eco-fascists”, some of those in authority who seem determined to limit the availability of new exotic plants entering the country, and to promote only native plants. Public servants pushing their views on what was once one of the biggest gardening communities in the world.

Of course, with New Zealand being relatively pest free, and dependent on agriculture and horticulture, no one would argue that border control is essential. Does this mean it is necessary to use such expensive chemicals for the treatment of possible pests? It would seem so, as far as some are concerned, and the reason given is that organisms such as mites and viruses are continually becoming resistant to past treatments.

One issue we had to contend with was that of Iris fulva and what are termed the I. fulva mosaic virus, and the yellow spot virus. These apparently affect onions which are a large commercial crop here, so the irises are scrutinised rigorously for viruses. The chemical Abamectin is the latest requirement for the treatment of mites, and the cost is prohibitive unless it can be obtained in a small enough quantity for the smaller importer. So far, that seems to be impossible and unlikely to change. Small nurseries are struggling here, and many mail order nurseries have closed in recent times. Some are fighting on via the Nurserymens’ Association, and many believe that the importation of new plants is desirable and indeed necessary for diversification in this country.  

Our prices are somewhat higher for the first three years for our new introductions than they may be in the USA, a reflection of the costs involved. We market the irises from our website, rather than a large expensive catalogue, but we do produce a simple catalogue with some colour. Earlier this year, we submitted an article on Louisiana irises and photographs to a fortnightly gardening publication. They agreed to publish it in due course, but as luck would have it, they changed their minds and published a more wide-ranging article on all water-loving irises, and used some of our photos. This worked to our advantage as it highlighted our nursery and website and resulted in a substantial advertising bonus.   

So, with our having achieved all this, where to from here? In such a small country with a population of only 4,000,000 people our market is limited. Louisiana irises struggle to compete with their Tall Bearded cousins, even though they grow so well here, but they are on a par with Siberians and Japanese irises in popularity. On the whole new immigrants do not participate in sustaining the greenness of the land, our younger working people prefer a well-groomed and contained environment if they garden at all, and the gardening community is fast becoming an ageing community. Maybe there will be another turnaround as people become tired of sterile surroundings, and return to gardening. These are some of the issues that we have to contend with, and another difficulty is that of obtaining species seed. There is little available and the SLI does not have a seed exchange. Maybe that is something we could all work towards, to offer species irises to those collectors who want only the purest of forms.  

We may or may not try to import again, but we have achieved one of our goals, which was to increase the genetic pool to enable us to begin a New Zealand hybridising programme. We could not have done this without the assistance of our friends Heather and Bernard Pryor, who really pulled out all stops to make this happen, and we owe much to them, not least their willingness to supply us with American bred cultivars as well those bred in Australia. Our long term goal? To break even would be very nice. We would be very excited to see the Louisianas as common a garden plant as the bearded irises, but that is an uphill battle within our own Society, never mind the general population. We have had some, but not much support from our Executive and Society members, but we do hear that from the growers of other types as well. In the meantime we can enjoy our lovely irises and plan our hybridising programme with a view to creating something unique to New Zealand. Whether we can produce something good enough to be worthy of the Mary Swords DeBaillon award, to follow in the footsteps of Sam Rix whose cultivar “Frances Elizabeth’ achieved that honour in 1965, remains to be seen.

Editor's Note:  This article first appeared in the Fleur de Lis, the quarterly publication of the Society for Louisiana Irises in the Spring 2007 edition.