The infinite variations in Louisiana irises is one of the most amazing things ever observed in any group 'of plants. As to the form of the flowers, orchids show more diversity; but the color-range is un-surpassed in any genus. And this applies to them as they were found growing in their native habitat.
Iris fulva, discovered in 1812, is a well established species. It is easily recognized, for flowers, foliage, and fruit are quite distinctive. It is more widely distributed than any species in this group, and occurs from North Arkansas to South Louisiana. In its more northerly habitat, it varies little, with small rust-red, drooping flowers, and a very rare yellow form. In Central and South Louisiana, the flowers are larger, and colors are varied, ranging from rich red to shrimp-pink.
Iris brevicaulis is a rather loosely defined species, including several to which Dr. J. K. Small gave specific rank. The type seems to be a low growing species, with zigzag erect stems, about 8 to 10 inches in height. The flowers, of flat form, are rather large for the size of the plant, and vary from brilliant lavender-blue to white. The variety which Small named I. foliosa is quite common in ditch banks and around ponds in southern Louisiana. The copious foliage is inclined to lie flat, and almost obscure the attractive flowers. Often the flower stems are prostrate. On Northwest Louisiana, near Minden, LA, there is a truly dwarf form, which may deserve specific rank. The entire plant is small, with a few narrow leaves, the erect slightly zig-zag stems 6 to 8 inches in height. The bright violet flowers have rather narrow segments, but are held well above the rather scant foliage.
In the vast fields of I.giganticaerulea discovered by Dr. J. K. Small (1926), the predominant color was blue-violet, in various shades. But there was an occasional clone with rose-colored flowers, and there was one in clear yellow. The last was later named Kraemer Yellow, honoring Mrs. Kraemer, who discovered it. Dr. Small also collected plants in many colors and forms, which he named as species, but which most botanists now consider natural hybrids.
Around Paradi-suburbs of New Orleans-the late Mrs. Dan DeBaillon discovered and collected some beautiful irises. These varied in form and color to an amazing degree. They were sometimes sold in New Orleans flower markets under the name "Japanese Iris"! One of the most outstanding was a large flower of flat form, with broad segments, and of a beautiful clear red. It was so good that it was registered under the name Bon Rouge. Another was of campanulate form, in shades of foxglove and hepatica, and was registered as Fox-glove Bells. In the same area, Mr. O. F. R. Bruce collected a very definite bicolor-something new at the time-which was named Contrast. An outstanding feature of all of these irises was the narrow foliage, so glaucous as to give the effect of blue-green. A startling discovery. made by the writer is the fact that the foliage of this group is resistant to the disfigurating and hated "rust." It is quite possible that by using these varieties in hybridizing, the rust can be bred out of Louisiana irises.
For some years after their discovery, there was little hybridizing done. But when W. B. McMillian discovered the magnificent "Abbevilles," new impetus was given to this work, and fine new forms began to appear. The Ahbevilles have very large flowers, sometimes with over-lapping segments, and the texture is almost leathery. The pre-dominent colors are rich reds and yellows, and the plants are extremely vigorous.
As a last boost to hybridizing, G. W. Holleyman found fields of giant blue and white iris in Cameron Parish. The flowers are very beautiful, and the plants have great vigor. Nothing in blues could be finer than Ruth Holleyman, and some of the whites are out-standing. By crossing these with other varieties in red and rose shades, Mr. Holleyman has produced some fine new forms, with large flowers of various colors.
With the splendid Abbevilles to cross with other varieties, W. B. MacMillan has given us some of our finest irises. First came Peggy Mac, in magenta-rose, but with the typical Abbeville form and texture. One of the parents was Haile Selassie, a rich red-violet in color, and with magic in its blood-lines. It was collected in the wild, but some of our finest hybrids have descended from this iris. These include Rose of Abbeville, Violet Ray, Wheelhorse, and others. Peggy Mac has also been the parent of numerous excellent hybrids. Some of the seedlings of Abbevilles show an amazing development-"sunburst" veining, with cream or yellow rays extending past the middle of the sepal. MacMillan's Bayou Sunset is an outstanding example of this type.
Ira S. Nelson gave us Cherry Bounce, a beautiful Bordeaux red, with the "Abbeville sheen" very pronounced. But the most interesting feature of this iris is that it tends to prove the writer's theory, that rust can be bred out of our Louisiana irises. One parent of Cherry Bounce was Contrast, from the New Orleans area, and entirely rust-free. The other parent, an Abbeville red, is somewhat subject to rust, yet Cherry Bounce has proved to be absolutely rust-resistant. This should encourage more breeding along these lines. Other old varieties that are rust-free are David Fischer, Foxglove Bells and Eventide.
Most of the Abbeville yellows as collected in the wild are too drooping in form to please the average taste, but by crossing with Kraemer Yellow-crisp and upstanding-some very satisfying varieties have been produced. Among these are Sally Smith's Sunny, MacMillan's Strutting Canary, Dormon's Golden Sheaves, Chowning's Dixie Deb and others.
Less has been accomplished in white hybrids than in any line of activity. There seems to be as yet no white that is finer than two collected varieties, Her Highness and Barbara Elaine Taylor. The writer has never succeeded in getting any white to cross with an Abbeville yellow-they are always like the white parent. When white is crossed with white, blue shades usually result. Much work and study is needed here.
In the last few years, Charles Arny has been bringing out some fine hybrids. His Chuck is a large firm flower in rich red. His Putty-tat is a lovely blue which is almost a dwarf. This appeals to the writer,who has been developing a race of low-growing forms, such as Rose Bells. Ira Nelson has come up with a delicate pink in the same class. For several years, hybridizing has been done at the Iris Test Garden at Louisiana State University, and some good varieties have resulted from these efforts. Claude Davis has given us Flat-top, a new form in blues, as airy as a butterfly.
Many other fine hybrids have been produced, but it is impossible to name them all. Sidney Conger has given us some of our finest new varieties, which his mother has grown right along with Columbines, Chrysanthemums, Dianthus, and other flowers, proving that they are truly garden plants. We seem to be well on the way toward producing a strain of garden irises that may excel them all.