The following material is reprinted from various old publications that I sometimes find more interesting to read than the new ones. So many of these bulletins and catalogs are not available even in files of members or in libraries. Early bulletins of the Society for Louisiana Irises were mimiographed and sent out only to members, along with a letter from the president or the secretary. Few people saved them. When space permits, other interesting historical material will be published in our Newsletters.
This first quote comes from the Introduction in the first Bulletin of the American Iris Society in June, 1920, "Although this, our First Bulletin is primarily devoted to the culture of Irises it seems desirable to include a short note as to just what varieties of the Bearded Irises are to be recommended to those who have the enthusiasm but not the pocket-book for a collection of the finest and newest introductions. (Incidentally I might say that all the obtainable species are inexpensive). Such a list should be small - there will be many conspicuous omissions - but our chief object is to include a wide range of color and time of bloom accompanied by a small cash outlay. All these varieties may be obtained from some nursery at $ .50 a root, most of them will cost only $.25 each or even less if purchased in quantity”. I wonder what the writer would think about the $100 and $50 price tags on some current introductions!
In this same Bulletin Number I an article by Louise Beebe Wilder Of New York State, "Adventures with American Irises", states, "With regard to American Irises we stand upon a threshold that promises delightful things. At the present time, it must be said, knowledge of the native species is very slight. Even in gardens where irises are grown in great numbers and variety the Americans are conspicuously absent, and few persons are familiar with any save that which graces their immediate neighborhood. This, however, is not really surprising, since, until quite recently, only I.versicolor, the common Eastern species, and I.cristata, have been offered in our home catalogues, and for many of us the nurserymen's lists constitute the limit of possibility. Today by dint of keen search and inquiry a few more may be discovered, but it is still far from easy to secure a representative collection. Nor is it any easier to glean authentic information concerning the conditions under which the various species grow naturally, their habits and requirements, so that collecting American Irises is a real adventure and one that should fire the zeal of every admirer of the beautiful family.1I Wilder lists the Southern species as I. fulva, I. hexagona and I. foliosa, stating that these last two are obviously very closely related.
The last article in AIS Bulletin No. I was a general one on culture written by R. S. Sturtevant, the first Secretary of AIS and later the Bulletin Editor. I was fortunate to get to know Bob Sturtevant before his tragic death by fire at his home in Nashville, Tenn. He was a most intelligent and interesting person, but a real “character”. He devoted only part of a paragraph in his 8 page article to Louisiana irises,. but I doubt he was growing any at the time this article was written. He writes, “Foliosa does not flower freely except under fairly moist conditions though in England a rather -dry and sunny position is recommended. Fulva with its small livid blooms is from the same district, all are naturally semi-aquatic and one would expect fairly tender, but they have stood 15 below zero in my garden and thanks to a covering of snow the last was not so badly burned as it sometimes is in the neighborhood of Washington. Hexagona is a lovely thing and Mr. E. B. Williamson's hybrid DOROTHEA K. WILLIAMSON, a cross with foliosa, is wonderfully rich. In Mr. Morrison’s heavy clay it has flourished but in my lighter soil the plant is less happy.”
To my knowledge the first commercial grower to advertise and sell Louisiana irises was the Royal Iris Gardens, run by J. C. Nicholls, Jr. of Camillus, NY (near Ithica). Their 1933 Catalogue was full of their recent collecting trips to Louisiana and the resulting irises they were offering for sale. From the Foreword of the catalog, “This year we are introducing a number of distinct forms and variations of the Louisiana Species, all of which were personally collected in the swamps and bayous of Louisiana. They are all fine colors and excellent additions to the Beardless field. Also, a fine form of Prismatica, collected by a friend.
“We have had much pleasure in collecting them and enjoying their beauty in their native environment, and are glad to be able to offer them that others may enjoy them also. But it is not an easy task to collect them in their native swamps; at best it is very hard work. “One has to be both strong physically and have strong nerves to stand the tiring tramping through fields and ditches, wading in the mud and poisonous-green scummed, waist deep black water of dismal cypress swamps. where an alligator may be encountered at any moment, and where there are always plenty of water moccasins and occasionally rattlesnakes. One looks carefully first before reaching down to pull up an Iris root. And the old cypress trees, bearded with long streamers of Spanish moss, with swelling butts and wickedly pointed “knees” present a weird and most forbidding aspect. One never feels quite comfortable in among them, and always heaves a sigh of relief when he comes back out into the warm bright sunshine.
At the beginning of Nicholls Introductions for 1933, he explains about which irises they collected and the names given each. At that time the names were subject to the approval of the English Iris Society. The listing and descriptions are too long to reprint here, but there were 22 introduced at prices from #3.00 to $7.50 and 2 of these were listed as fall blooming. Quoting from his introduction comments: “After all these years of crossing, it has remained for our first introductions to be, not the result of our own hybridization, but that of the greatest of all hybridizers, Mother Nature. Nature has accomplished more in developing new plants and always will than man can ever hope for. In fact, among these Louisiana Species, there is very little left to be added in the way of colors, the variation being about as great already as that attained by Bearded Iris at the present stage. “During the several collecting trips we made to the swamps of Louisiana we obtained many beautiful and outstanding varieties and forms of the Native Species, quite distinct from the types of those as named by Dr. Small and Alexander. Many unattractive forms were passed by for everyone selected as beautiful.
“Of these we have selected a number for introduction to commerce this year; all of them are beautiful, distinct, and fine garden subjects. They differ in color and other ways from the types of these Species offered by us, so that there is no duplication. "In discussion with Dr. Small, the original discoverer of these Species, it was deemed most fitting that they be given the interesting and unusual names of the localities where they were discovered, native Indian names, and those of persons important in the history of New Orleans, and of beautiful features of the city itself.” Of the 18 introductions of beardless that were Louisiana irises, the names were well selected, like LeVIEUX CARRE, LOUISIANA SUNSET, SAZERAC, BILOXI and BAYOU BARATARIA. Also the names for his two fall blooming irises, which sound too good to be true! Too bad such plants were not saved for modern hybridizers. Nicholls described them as follows: “AUTUMN FIRE and AUGUST FLAME are perhaps the most striking discovery in recent Iris development. They are Fall Blooming Beardless Iris, the first of this sort on record, blooming in late Summer and early Fall. Even if they did not have this remarkable habit of blooming so late in the season, they would both have been introduced because of their outstanding quality among the other Louisiana Species.
"They were originally collected in Louisiana because of their large size and outstanding brilliancy of color, AUGUST FLAME in 1930, and AUTUMN FIRE in 1931, each in a different locality. They both are very strong growers of rampant increase, and very floriferous, with the most branched stalks we have ever seen on any Iris, each stalk having six branches as well as the terminal, the lowest branch starting only an inch above the rhizome. About twelve to fourteen blooms to the stalk."They are apparently forms or hybrids of Fulva, but may prove to be new Species; their extremely fine branching and rampant growth sets them apart from all other Louisianas, which usually have only three to six blooms to the stalk.
"They both bloomed in 1932, each on two mature and vigorous clumps, and with not the least appearance of abnormality. Both clumps of AUGUST FLAME put up stalks at the same time which grew to full and normal stature and then opened their first blooms almost the same day. Both clumps of AUTUMN FIRE did the same. Each variety formed seed pods which had almost matured when freezing weather came. “AUGUST FLAME opened its first blooms August 7th, and continued into early September. AUTUMN FIRE also bloomed in early August and continued well into September. Both were in flower for a month or more, making a very beautiful display."
Under the heading "American Species" and with a listing of 3 pages of the then called "species" of Louisiana irises, each with an un-pronounceable name, Nicholls wrote the following comments: “Until recently Europe and Asia had given us all of our very large and showy Beardless Species, and the general comment among many European gardeners was that American Species were small and insignificant. Dr. Small's discovery of the wonderful Louisiana Species has shown us that we had large showy Species in plenty, just waiting to be discovered and introduced. For I doubt if anyone could call a seven and a half foot Iris small and insignificant, or the brilliant reds of Fulva."
How strange to read such information about Louisiana irises that was written over 55 years ago. To think that in 1920 there was no exact knowledge of the species we now know about. And even in 1933 many natural hybrids were considered to be species and given such names. One is curious about the collected plants grown and introduced by J. C. Nicholls. He mentions stalks with 6 branches and a terminal. Our present hybridizers are hard pressed to turn out anything with such a high count. Native hybrids he collected with 12 and 14 blooms to a stalk would also make most hybridizers envious! Not to mention the two collected varieties that he guarantees will bloom in August and September Unfortunately, it is doubtful that any of these collected plants have survived these 55 years, but their descriptions might influence the direction of hybridizing. Why not stalks with such high bud count? Why not some fall blooming Louisianas? Already our hybridizers have produced far more brilliant reds than the fulvas he mentions.