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Calling All Gardeners: A Quest to Save Rare Irises

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Calling All Gardeners: A Quest to Save Rare Irises

October 6, 2017

Back in the mid ’80s my husband and stepson, then a teenager, were big fans of the astringent comedy of Steven Wright. His odd, desert-dry punchlines sent them into spasms of guffaws while leaving me more puzzled than amused.  However, one of the comedian’s classic lines came to mind the other day when I learned about Guardian Gardens, a new project to save endangered varieties of historic irises. Wright memorably said, “I have the world’s largest collection of seashells. I keep it on all the beaches of the world… perhaps you’ve seen it.

The ingenious iris rescue program sponsored by the Historic Iris Preservation Society (HIPS) operates on the same principle, by recruiting an army of amateur gardeners across North America to grow and care for them at home. In other words, Guardian Gardens keeps it collection of irises in anonymous flower beds and containers in gardens all around the country.

Would you like to enlist? Send an email to [email protected] if you’d like to help preserve historic irises by growing them at home.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about the quest to save endangered irises:

Why do irises need help?

Iris &#8
Above: Iris ‘Hester Prynne’.

Why exactly, you may ask, do irises need citizen gardeners to help them? Indeed, that was one of my first questions to Suzanne Broullon, communications and donor manager of the famed Presby Memorial Iris Gardens in Montclair, New Jersey during a recent phone conversation. When I had looked up the flower in my trusty American Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants I was amazed to find, instead of the usual one-page entry, nine pages densely packed with iris information and nearly 100 photographs of different kinds of irises. In a brief visit to the website of  The Species Iris Group of North America, I learned not only that irises have been around 60 to 100 million years but also that “in addition to the roughly 1,500 naturally occurring species there are tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of hybrids available.”

What is the big deal if some irises go missing?

Irises bloom beside glass houses in Wales. For more of this garden, see Walled Gardens: An Organic and Picturesque Plot at Old-Lands in Wales.
Above: Irises bloom beside glass houses in Wales. For more of this garden, see Walled Gardens: An Organic and Picturesque Plot at Old-Lands in Wales.

Why should those of us who are not professional horticulturists care if older varieties disappear?  Broullon (patiently) explained that the genetic material from antique irises is needed by present-day hybridizers for their work in continuing to breed flowers that suit modern garden designs, have improved disease resistance. and will survive the world’s changing climate.

Arthur Bliss was an English iris breeder whose early th century varieties are being carefully cultivated in Gloucestershire.
Above: Arthur Bliss was an English iris breeder whose early 20th century varieties are being carefully cultivated in Gloucestershire.

Broullon also cited the Presby garden’s work in assisting people trying to accurately restore historic gardens. They depend, she said, on the existence of older cultivars for authenticity in reestablishing period landscapes. Restoration of a 1950s garden, for instance, is likely to need some of the many pink irises developed in the Eisenhower era in response to Mamie Eisenhower’s well-known affinity for that color.

With so many irises, who noticed that some were disappearing?

Above: Iris ‘Marsh Marigold’ dates to .
Above: Above: Iris ‘Marsh Marigold’ dates to 1919.

For that answer, I turned to the man who is the powerful engine behind the Guardian Gardens program, W. Douglass Paschall. He told me that in 2014, iris fanciers voiced concern in an online forum about escalating numbers of cultivars being lost because of a number of factors, including the closings of some major iris dealers as well as the lack of communication among gardeners.

Frequently, if an iris succumbs to a disease or a borer attack or some other catastrophe, the owner of it is unaware if it is an endangered variety.  Paschall cited the extinction of Tobacco Road, a 1940s brown cultivar known to be a parent of almost 200 iris hybrids.  The last known individual plant apparently succumbed to rot in the garden of a person who had no idea it was the only one left and, therefore, did not try to get help to save it.

What is the secret to saving irises?

Iris &#8
Above: Iris ‘Bruno’ from the 1920s (1922, probably). Some older irises can be slightly variable in color and form.

From his former career as a museum director, Paschall knew that the key to effective preservation, whether it be artifacts or paintings or plants, is accurate record keeping.  If you don’t know what’s in danger, there’s no impetus to blow the whistle and rush to the rescue.  Using plant lists from members of the Historic Iris Preservation Society and inventories from nurseries, he organized the data to show which plants had the lowest numbers.

The next step was to recruit caretakers for rare specimens. These gardeners would be nurturing the endangered irises in their own gardens, preferably in a dedicated bed safe from marauding animals and plant thieves—and monitored frequently for signs of disease, insect infestation, or other problems. Plants that thrived would be divided.  The resulting new plants would be distributed to other caretakers and botanic gardens.  The ultimate aim was to eventually get them off the endangered list and make them commercially available.

Since the participating guardians receive no renumeration (except for the free irises and a safety net of advice and support) and are required not only to provide tender loving care but also to keep accurate records on the progress of their plants, I asked Paschall what motivated his caretakers.  “Passion,” he said, “is necessary.” He added that the Guardian Gardeners realize they are part of something bigger: preserving the genotypes of the world and saving rare plants for future generations.  The numbers prove these goals are powerful incentives.  In 2014, the first year of the program, 11 gardeners volunteered. That number doubled in each of the next two years and now more than 80 gardeners participate in growing more than 2,000 cultivars.

Both Broullon and Paschall emphasize that time is of the essence. Population growth, relentless development and unpredictable climate alterations are all combining to threaten dwindling species of all types of living things. For irises in particular, Broullon cites the aging of the current generation of aficionados and experts.  They and their knowledge are fast disappearing and it is important, she says, to preserve what they know.

How do I sign up to help save rare irises?

Ready to unfurl.
Above: Ready to unfurl.

Paschall is eager to enlist more gardeners in the Guardian Gardens project. He stresses that economic status and garden size are of no consequence. Current participants include owners of mansions with vast swaths of acreage as well as apartment dwellers tending a few pots on a terrace.

Because the program aims to grow irises in as many diverse climates as possible, residents of all areas of North America are welcome.  Be warned, however,  that no fame will result from your efforts.  To safeguard the rare flowers, participating gardeners are anonymous and the location of their gardens is kept secret.  Readers who are interested in becoming Guardian Gardeners can contact Paschall at [email protected]

Iris &#8
Above: Iris ‘Daphne’ dates to 1921, a tall bearded iris bred by English iris collector Arthur Bliss. For more, see Bearded Irises: A Lost Generation of Flowers Has a Moment.

And if the idea of joining forces with other gardeners to save endangered plants appeals to you but irises aren’t your thing, keep your eye on Doug Paschall.  Encouraged by the growth and success of Guardian Gardens he’s already imagining the same techniques working for roses, day lilies, ferns mosses… well, you name it.  In fact, he told me that talks on preserving another plant (tulips, perhaps?) will start as soon as this winter.

N.B.: Gardeners around the world are passionate about saving endangered varieties of flowers. See more:

Finally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for iris with our Iris: A Field Guide.

Interested in other bulbs and tubers for your garden or indoor space? Get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various bulbs and tubers with our Bulbs & Tubers: A Field Guide.

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