by W. B. MacMillan
Although it was largely through our mutual interest in ornamental horticulture that brought us together, it soon became Mary herself, her personality, and her character that we, Peggy and I, shall never forget; and it was this that held us together as friends until she was taken away only twelve years later.
Very soon after we arrived in Abbeville during July of 1928, we began scouting in all directions into the South Louisiana countryside. It seemed natural that after being cooped up for more than a year in a small Bronx, New York, apartment three stories up, we should find ourselves much like a pair of bird dogs suddenly released in a field filled with quail trails; and it didn’t take us long to learn that the name Mary DeBaillon was already a legend in Louisiana flori-culture circles. So we were correspondingly impressed when we were by chance introduced to Mary DeBaillon in a camellia garden a few miles out from Jacksonville, Florida.
Our next encounter was in her own “far more than lovely” fifteen-acre garden located some five miles out of Lafayette, Louisiana, just off the present new Highway 10 as it passes Lafayette. Of course, I found that it was then, as now, enclosed in a netting wire fence that to me looked twelve feet tall, with the gates all locked; but I just had to see Mary again, and having been brought up in West Texas and being naturally a friendly type, I took advantage of a strong looking limb reaching from a sturdy inside oak to my side of the fence, and I soon found myself on the inside; and with the trespassing sign completely out of sight giving me a relatively clear conscience, I soon found Mary DeBaillon on her knees caressing a newly emerging camellia graft. If you could have seen her expression of mingled surprise and disbelief as she looked up and saw me, I am sure you would have agreed that we were by that time irrevocably introduced; and the smile that followed, though perhaps grudgingly given, told me that we were also friends forever.
Certainly, this friendship ripened rapidly as I described to her literally fields of red iris interspersed with yellows that I had stumbled upon in the Steen woods near Abbeville during the previous spring. This discovery of mine was somewhat like, except in reverse, the early English explorers who found fabulous fields of diamonds that the Boors of the South African Transvaal had stubbed their toes upon for centuries without ever realizing their value. So Mary DeBaillon was now not only our friend, but our tutor in native iris values as well.
It was thus that “Abbeville Reds” became news and the news begot interest from far and wide—interest that assembled car pools of iris hunters in a way reminiscent of the early California Gold Rush Days but not quite comparable; and the stature of Mary DeBaillon grew as a naturalist.
Of course, this evidence was not needed so far as those who really knew her, and her fifteen-acre garden plot, were concerned. They were the elite among naturalists who had been privileged to work with her and visit her garden—those who could appreciate the many rare specimen plants, shrubs, and trees that were largely indigenous to the Louisiana area and that over the years had been gathered in this show garden. These were the friends and co-workers who could be trusted to respect the privilege of entry.
It should be of interest to recount at least the last of the many trips we made together in the Vermilion Region of the now famous red and yellow native iris species. Mary came with her regular chauffeur. I have forgotten his name, but I haven’t forgotten Adolph, the huge dog, St. Bernard I believe, that was her constant companion on these field trips. At one point Mary was comparing the many obvious hybrid varieties that we had located among these large reds, when she suddenly asked her chauffeur to bring to her from her car a large pallet where she stretched out on the ground in obviously great pain. Of course, Peggy and I both shared the anxiety that the chauffeur, and even Adolph, clearly showed, but Mary soon recovered and we completed our last iris field trip together with no apparent ill effects to her.
But by this time we, with her many friends, were gradually becoming aware that Mary’s iris, or other plant, field trips were numbered, not so much by time and certainly not by any lack of interest on her part. But courageous as she was and regardless of her anxiety to continue the magnificent collection of Louisiana native iris species that she had been collecting over many years, she telephoned to us one day that she would like to see us. We found her in bed and outwardly as cheerful as ever; and as we were preparing to leave after a delightful but anxious visit, she asked us to look in a certain drawer in her bedroom where we found a sack of iris seed; and she went to great pains to explain how they had been carefully selected for what she thought might be her last planting, but she was now asking us to do this planting for her in our own garden.
It was out of this seed collection that the iris, BAYOU SUNSET, and the iris, ‘Aurora Borealis’, came and it was these two that became the prize winning seedlings at the first and second years shows of the Mary Swords DeBaillon Iris Society that was organized two years later. Mary was not only a personality of great stamina and courage, but hers was a clear vision and a strong desire for creating as well as collecting beauty as nature made it. To us she revealed a strong and abiding faith in the goodness and mercy as well as the justice of the Creator of all beauty, all truth, and all love.