John James Audubon was the first to call a Louisiana iris by that name. With the Parula Warbler, he painted a rose-colored iris, and in his notes designated it Louisiana iris.
While visiting Mrs. A. F. Storm in Morgan City, in 1920, I saw these fabulous flowers for the first time. There were masses of them in ditches just outside the city. There was little rust-red I.fulva, and a tall species with very large flowers in every shade of lavender-blue, and even rich violet. My excitement knew no bounds, and I at once consulted the botanies. I found I. fulva for it had been described and named way back in 1812. But nowhere was there a description to fit the giant blue. Later, Dr. J. K. Small named it Iris giganticaerulea.
I took plants home with me to North Louisiana, where they flourished. When Dr. Small came to Briarwood in 1926 he said, "Why haven't you told me about these irises?" To which I replied, "I did not know you then." Dr. Small had discovered the wonderful iris fields in the vicinity of New Orleans, and said there was nothing to compare with them anywhere in the world. He came back year after year, collected, classified, and had many of them painted. These appeared from time to time in ADDISONIA, publication of the New York Botanical Garden.
But I soon learned that a few observant gardeners in New Orleans had been collecting these fascinating plants for years and growing them in their gardens. I asked Dr. Small where I could find the various beautiful colors. He said, "Go to Mrs. B. S. Nelson. She will treat you right." When I went to see Mrs. Nelson, I learned that for years she and her sister, Miss Ethel Hutson, had been growing the native iris in their gardens. She had guided Dr. Small to some of his most interesting finds.
And there were others. George Thomas, Superintendent of Parks in New Orleans, had been collecting these iris over the years. He found the native yellow, a small sport of I. fulva. Mr. and Mrs. Clifford Lyons donned boots and explored the bogs for beautiful colors, and their garden contained some of the most striking forms. Mr. O. F. R. Bruce discovered the first true bi-color. Being a herpetologist, Pery Viosca traversed the bogs, and there he collected Louisiana irises. He began studying them and wrote articles giving his theories as to the species.
It seems astonishing that these amazing flowers did not attract more attention. Ellsworth Woodward, head of the Art Department at Newcomb College in New Orleans, was struck with their beauty and made paintings of them, which now hang in Delgado Museum. Occasionally local florists cut flowers and sold them -labeled "Japanese iris"!
There were fields of iris down around Houma, Louisiana, and at an early date, Mrs. Allen Ellender had them growing in her garden. Randolph Bazet collected them and guided Dr. Small to some interesting localities. Dr. Small's visits and publications stimulated interest, and the number of collectors increased. Mr. and Mrs. J. G. Richard, of Baton Rouge, gathered various lovely forms from far and wide.
Mrs. Dan DeBaillon of Lafayette amassed the largest and most varied collection in existence. Right in the edges of New Orleans, she found many unusual and beautiful varieties, even reds and pinks. These fields have now been built over and destroyed. Mrs. DeBaillon had visited Briarwood many times and knew I had suitable places for growing these irises; so she willed her collection to me. To insure their perpetuation, I gave one of each variety to L.S.U. and to Southwestern Louisiana Institute (now the University of Southwestern Louisiana). I also gave a number of plants to Mrs. Cammie Henry at Melrose and to Mrs. R. L. Randolph at Alexandria. These two gardens produced some fine hybrids. Mrs. Randolph named a brilliantly colored one for Dr. J. K. Small and it won an award from the American Iris Society.
W. B. MacMillan kept telling Mrs. DeBaillon about big red and yellow irises in the vicinity of Abbeville. She accepted his invitation to come see them - and there they were in all their glory! There were big clones of huge yellows and reds in every shade. Also, their form was different from anything previously discovered, with very broad segments, with no claws. This discovery stimulated hybridizing which had just begun.
The first hybridizers - including myself - were not pursuing it for scientific purposes but simply were trying for pretty new colors. My DAN DEBAILLON was the first true soft pink. Interest in the Louisianas had been gradually moving north and a group of gardeners in Shreveport grew them successfully. Lillian Hall Trichel had been experimenting with crossing them and produced LILYANA, a sort of fore-runner of forms that were to follow. It was not an attractive color, but had firm broad segments and a brilliant rayed crest. Later, her CADDO won the Mary Swords DeBaillon Award. When the American Iris Society met in Shreveport, LA, in 1951, the Louisianas largely made up the show, and Mrs. Alex Smith's ROYAL GEM captured the American Iris Society President's Cup.
Some of the wild varieties were so lovely they were named and registered. In her own bog, Mrs. Rene Kraemer found a lovely dear yellow, the first yellow of giganticaeruela form. It was named KRAEMER YELLOW. Never before in the history of floriculture did a flower of such spectacular beauty come straight from the wild to gardens. With their astonishing range of colors they truly deserved the name, Iris, the Rainbow. The very names suggest their charm: WILD SWAN, BAYOU VERMILION, JEUNE FILLE, CAJAN, REFLECTED LIGHT, HAILE SELASSIE, LOCKETT'S LUCK, among others.
Soon after the death of Mrs. DeBaillon, W. B. MacMillan, the late Ira Nelson, and others began agitating the idea of organizing a society to further the interest in the Louisianas. A number of enthusiastic growers met at Lafayette, and the Mary Swords DeBaillon Louisiana Iris Society was formed. A meeting was held once each year at Lafayette, an elaborate show was staged, and awards given for the best flowers displayed. At once there was a gratifying response, with members corning from Texas and other states. The warm support of President Joel Fletcher and the faculty of the University of Southwestern Louisiana assured the permanent success of this undertaking. Later, when the name was changed to the Society for Louisiana Irises, the Mary Swords DeBaillon Award was established through the American Iris Society, with a medal given to the flower voted best in the nation.
N ow hybridizing became the hobby of almost every grower. Flowers of spectacular beauty have been produced by Conger, Holleyrnan, Amy, Neugebauer, Nelson, MacMillan and others. The Conger irises are remarkable for their over-lapping segments and for true branching. As many of the collected irises were already multiple hybrids, surprises were the order of the day. A seed of 'WHEELHORSE, a large deep rose flower, produced G. W. HOLLEYMAN, a big clear yellow. Other fine yellows, such as LOUISIANA SAMBO, came from darker colored parents.
In 1817, Rafinesque named I.breuicaulis, a short stemmed species possessing great cold-resistance. (As the oldestname, this now includes I.foliosa and I.flexicaulis.) Because of its tough constitution, it was largely used in his hybridizing by Frank Chowning of Little Rock. He has given us a semi-dwarf strain in exquisite colors. His DIXIE DEB, a lovely light yellow, is tall, up to 30 inches. The flowers are not large but are borne in profusion. It has proved to be one of the most satisfactory as a garden iris. At Arcadia, Louisiana, Mrs. W. E. Conger plants it in masses,
where it combines beautifully with other perennials.
Over the years, Ray Cornay and his charming wife, Katherine, gave unstintingly of their knowledge of the habitat of the irises and of their delightful hospitality. Their warm support gave an impetus to the advancement of Louisiana irises which cannot be measured.
A child of southern bogs, the adaptability of the Louisiana irises is amazing. It is grown in New England, and in the arid West. It flourishes in California, where it is very popular. This, Louisiana's child, has traveled around the world. It grows in Australia, and in New Zealand it multiplies unbelievably. Sam Rix says, "It is the most beautiful of all irises, and has a great future." He is hybridizing on a large scale.
Each year, the Louisiana iris is becoming more firmly established as a garden plant. It is growing in beauty. But this writer hopes that it will never become so highly developed as to lose its exquisite natural