by Ron Killingsworth
Sidney Conger was born in July 1924, in his grandparent’s home at Arcadia, LA. He died in August 1993, in Houston, TX, and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Ruston, LA. Sidney’s wife of almost 40 years, Bette Lee Davis Conger, now resides near her daughter in Maryland. Sidney and Bette Lee had two boys and a girl and the children were raised in the family home in Arcadia.
Sidney probably developed his first interest in irises through his mother, Inez Conger , who grew irises in beds around the family home. As a young man Sidney attended the Society for Louisiana Iris (SLI) conferences in Lafayette. At one of the meetings he met a young lady of 15 years of age, the daughter of Vernon Davis of Algiers, LA. That young lady was Bette Lee. Sidney and Bette Lee married in 1953 at Algiers, LA. Bette Lee was also interested in LA irises and her uncle, Claude Davis, was one of the early hybridizers and collectors of LA irises. The iris “Professor Claude”, a tetrapolid iris introduced by Professor Mertzweiller, was named to honor him.
Sidney developed a close friendship with Caroline Dormon and often visited Briarwood. He obtained many of his irises from Caroline. In 1972 he registered “Dr. Dormon”, a pretty orchid colored iris with a bold gold signal. He also developed a friendship with W. B. MacMillan and registered “W. B. MacMillan”, a red bi-tone, in 1957. Sidney visited with and was close friends with Charles Arny and often had long talks with Charles about their hybridizing programs. Sidney sent some seeds or possibly some plants to J. C. Taylor in Australia. He also maintained contact with Marie Caillet and registered “Marie Caillet”, a blue-violet self with large gold signals, in 1963.
Bette Lee told me that Sidney’s hybridizing goals were to develop irises with good branching. He wanted his iris bloom stems to have many branches so that one bloom did not distract from other blooms on the bloom stem. He also wanted to develop deeper shades of colors and was very interested in the development of bi-color irises. Sidney also liked irises with overlapping segments. Sidney held his irises to high criteria and was very selective in registering and introducing his hybrid irises. Two irises that Sidney named but did not consider worthy of registration are “Midas Touch” and “Petit Point”. I obtained both of these irises from Briarwood and grow them in our beds. They are both beautiful irises but according to Jessie Johnston of Briarwood, they simply did not meet Sidney’s criteria for registration, although he liked both of them and continued to grow them in his beds.
The SLI checklist contains 29 irises registered by Sidney Conger from 1948 to 1972. Over the years, his registered irises won 9 Honorable Mentions. “Marie Caillet” won the Mary Swords DeBaillon Award in 1970. “Mulberry Mousse” (1957) is one of the early registered irises that showed “veining” and is one of my Conger favorites. “Caroginia” (1956) was obviously one of his favorites and is used in three of his registered irises as the “pod parent” and one other iris as the “pollen parent”.
The SLI checklist is missing pictures of many of Sidney’s introductions and I am afraid some of them have been lost to us. Sidney’s irises were donated to Briarwood after his death and it is certainly possible some of these missing irises are growing at Briarwood and just not identified.
I graduated from High School in Arcadia in 1963 and had a casual acquaintance with the Conger family. My wife, Sue, remembers her school class walking down the street from the school to the home of Sidney and Bette Lee Conger and viewing the beautiful irises growing in their gardens.
After the death of his father, Sidney took over the family business in Arcadia, Conger’s Funeral Home, and I am sure he had less time to devote to his hobby of hybridizing LA irises. After Sidney’s death Bette Lee moved to Ruston, LA, where she lived until recently moving to be near her daughter in Maryland.
The efforts of Sidney and Bette Lee Conger live on as a constant reminder of their love for the Louisiana iris and I am very happy to have ten of his introductions growing in the beds near my home. I hope that some of his “lost” irises can be recovered so that others will have the opportunity to enjoy them.
I owe a “thank you” to Bette Lee Conger for most of the information in this article and to Harry Wolford for providing some of the necessary pictures. Our best wishes to Bette Lee and her family! Written with much respect by Ron Killingsworth, Treasurer, SLI