Heirloom Bulbs & Garden History  •  So Much More Than New
Read More: Iris
Feb
2
2017

Paradise Lost:
Winston-Salem’s Municipal Iris Garden

Paradise Lost: Winston-Salem’s Municipal Iris Garden – www.OldHouseGardens.com

Does your city have a municipal iris garden? Does any city?

That’s why I was so surprised when this postcard arrived in the mail recently.

It’s a modern reproduction of a 1949 postcard showing the “Municipal Iris Gardens, Winston-Salem, NC.” On the back it reads: “The Municipal Iris Garden contains 20,000 plants, of 525 varieties. The blossoms range from pure white to deep purple, gold, and dark red, and are at their best during May. Weeping willows and rustic bridges add to the beauty of the rolling parkway.”

20,000 plants – of 525 varieties! I had to know more, so I contacted the folks who sent the card – which announces the 2017 Conference on Restoring Southern Landscapes and Gardens– and here’s what I learned.

“The development of the gardens to their present state of beauty is a typical Cinderella story,” the Twin City Sentinel reported in 1938, “with many local iris growers acting as fairy godmothers.”

It all started in the early 1920s when a new neighborhood was laid out which included a four-acre “gully-way” that was left untouched “since there seemed no other purpose it could serve.”

Although today we’d probably consider it a valuable natural area, times were different then and in 1931 a doctor who lived nearby urged the city to beautify it with iris donated from his own extensive gardens. Iris were enormously popular at that time, and before long other neighbors joined the campaign and the Municipal Iris Garden was born.

The city parks department cleared the land, planted weeping willow trees, built stone and rustic-work bridges over the stream, and laid out gracefully curving beds. By 1938 the Twin City Sentinel reported that “Winston-Salem’s iris attract visitors from all parts of the state. From an unattractive gully the city parks department has transformed Runnymede Parkway into one of the most popular parks in the city.”

But that was then. By the early 1950s the iris had been replaced with lower-maintenance azaleas, and today even those are gone. The stone bridges still stand, though, bearing silent witness to the park’s glory days – and who knows what the next chapter might be for this Cinderella gully-way?

For additional images, visit digitalforsyth.org/photos/browse/places-gardens-runnymede-iris-gardens.

For your own little iris paradise, see the 17 heirloom iris we’re shipping this spring.

And many thanks to Camilla Wilcox, Kay Bergey, and Martha Hartley for sharing this remarkable story with me!

Jan
17
2017

Five Timeless Iris:
High Praise from the First President of the AIS

5 Timeless Iris: High Praise from the First President of the AIS – www.oldhousegardens.com
‘Queen of May’

The great horticulturist John Wister helped found the American Iris Society in 1920 and served as its first president for fourteen years.

At that time, iris were exceedingly popular and scores of exciting new varieties were being introduced every year. Yet in his small book The Iris published in 1930, Wister wrote that “the more of the new things I see, the more I am convinced of the worthiness of some of our oldest varieties” – such as these:

‘Pallida Dalmatica’ (1597) – “There is nothing . . . in the whole range of iris that is finer than the true ‘Pallida Dalmatica’,” Wister wrote, adding that planting it with lemon lily (Hemerocallis lilioasphodelus) is “one of the most famous” garden combinations with iris.

Germanica (by 1500) – “The purple flag of our grandmothers’ garden . . . should never be omitted for . . . it makes a striking garden picture.”

‘Flavescens’ (1813) – Among pale yellow iris “there is nothing to surpass the variety ‘Flavescens’, well known in every old garden in this country.”

‘Queen of May’ (1859) – “On the pink side of the lavenders, the old ‘Queen of May’ is . . . still one of the best.” It is “lovely,” he added, “with white and pink lupines and pink Dianthus.”

‘Mrs. Horace Darwin’ (1888) – Although “rather dwarf,” this white iris is “wonderfully free blooming. It is unexcelled for massing and should be used in every garden in quantities.”

Of course you don’t have to be an expert to enjoy these timeless treasures. Just order yours now for April delivery!

5 Timeless Iris: High Praise from the First President of the AIS – www.oldhousegardens.com
‘Flavescens’
5 Timeless Iris: High Praise from the First President of the AIS – www.oldhousegardens.com
‘Mrs. Horace Darwin’
5 Timeless Iris: High Praise from the First President of the AIS – www.oldhousegardens.com
‘Pallida Dalmatica’
Dec
7
2016

New Garden Books for Giving and Getting

Although the cold, short days of winter aren’t the best for gardening, they’re perfect for garden reading – and books make great holiday gifts. Here are five new ones I’m hoping to enjoy before spring returns.

New Garden Books for Giving and Getting – www.OldHouseGardens.com

Rescuing Eden: Preserving America’s Historic Gardens, by Curtice Taylor and Caroline Seebohm: “Most gardens do not survive their creators, being sold off, dug out, or, if not utterly destroyed, then so drastically changed as to be sadly unrecognizable. The 28 remarkable properties in this book” – ranging from Middleton Place plantation to the gardens of Alcatraz – “are happy exceptions to that rule. . . . Some are still in the process of renovation, and others will never be fully restored, but all offer rare glimpses into this country's horticultural history.” (reviewed by Adam Levine in Country Gardens)

New Garden Books for Giving and Getting – www.OldHouseGardens.com

Garden Flora: The Natural and Cultural History of the Plants in Your Garden, by Noel Kingsbury: “This must be the most beautiful book of the publishing season, with an oversize format rich in botanical art and historic and contemporary photos. Every page is stunning, a revelation in art and text of flora’s long and curious history. Kingsbury’s writing is a lively backstory to what we grow in our gardens” – including most of the bulbs we offer – and “it’s also right up to the minute with insight on current plant breeding and a poignant look at the plants we’ve lost.” (reviewed by Val Easton in the Seattle Times)

Garden Books for Giving and Getting – www.OldHouseGardens.com

The Botanical Treasury, by Christopher Mills: “The excitement of discovering a new plant is almost tangible in this lavish collection of plant histories. A delightful compendium of 40 plants from around the world, The Botanical Treasury tells the story of each one through a fascinating mix of botanical illustrations, letters sent to Kew from plant hunters, and reprinted extracts from botanical periodicals. . . . The book also includes forty reproduced prints of featured plants which can be framed – the icing on the cake of this tremendous and fascinating collection.” (reviewed in The English Garden)

New Garden Books for Giving and Getting – www.OldHouseGardens.com

A Garden for the President: A History of the White House Grounds, by Jonathan Pliska: “The White House grounds are the oldest continually maintained ornamental landscape in the United States. Handsomely illustrated with historical images and newly commissioned photography, A Garden for the President explores not only the relationship between the White House and its landscape but also the evolution of its design; the public and private uses . . . ; and the cultivation of the grounds with a focus on the specimen trees, vegetable and ornamental gardens, and conservatories. (reviewed by the White House Historical Association)

Garden Books for Giving and Getting – www.OldHouseGardens.com

Bliss Irises: Family and Flowers, The Journey to a National Collection, by Anne Milner: “Anne Milner blends personal history with gardening in this beautifully illustrated book. Her story starts with the discovery that her grandfather's cousin was . . . Arthur J. Bliss, who introduced 'Dominion', a ground-breaking purple iris that made him world famous. . . . The book’s second half focuses on the [more than 175 iris Bliss introduced], with detailed information about the plants, accompanied by photographs, watercolors, and line drawings.” (reviewed in Plant Heritage)

Jan
7
2016

Gray is Cool – And So is 500-Year-Old ‘Florentina’

Gray is Cool – And So is 500-Year-Old ‘Florentina’ – www.oldhousegardens.com

Once scorned as boring, gray is now one of the coolest colors around, as anyone knows who’s picked up a shelter magazine or watched a home improvement show recently.

But gray flowers?? Believe it or not, one of the most beautiful iris I know is the luminous, pewter-gray ‘Florentina’, and two of the 20th century’s leading horticulturists agree that it’s something special.

In her 1916 best-seller My Garden, Louise Beebe Wilder called ‘Florentina’ “a charming inhabitant of old gardens” and “one of the loveliest of irises,” and in 1930 the first president of the American Iris Society, John Wister, wrote that it “well deserves all its popularity, as nothing is better either for massing or cutting.”

Wister described its unique color as “pearly white,” and some gardeners see it as a very pale lavender, but to Wilder and me it’s truly gray. Wilder called it “French gray,” a pale gray warmed by a hint of brown or gold, but to my eye it most resembles the silvery gray of softly polished pewter.

‘Florentina’ is “invaluable to us in creating May pictures,” Wilder wrote, no doubt in part because gray goes well with just about everything. She suggested combining it with pink bleeding heart and Single Late tulips, yellow leopard’s bane (Doronicum), and lavender woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata), or planting it “in spreading groups near pink-flowered crabapple trees.”

So, are you cool enough for this gloriously gray beauty? Order a few now for delivery in April!

Dec
3
2015

Broken-Color Iris: From ‘Loreley’ to ‘Bewilderbeast’

Broken-Color Iris: From ‘Loreley’ to ‘Bewilderbeast’ – www.oldhousegardens.com

New to our catalog for delivery in April is ‘Loreley’, one of the most popular iris of the 20th century. Introduced in 1909, ‘Loreley’ was one of the first “broken-color” iris, a type that has become increasingly popular in recent years.

Unlike broken tulips whose stripes are caused by a benign virus, broken-color iris are irregularly splashed with contrasting colors due to a genetic mutation. Although at least one dates to the 19th century – ‘Victorine’ of 1840 – most early examples were probably discarded as misfits. The enormous popularity of ‘Loreley’, however, helped iris breeders begin to see these “flawed” iris in a whole new light.

Varieties with names like ‘Kaleidoscope’ and ‘Joseph’s Coat’ followed, but ‘Loreley’ remained the most popular broken-color iris until the elaborately patterned, purple and white ‘Batik’ was introduced in 1986. ‘Batik’ won the AIS’s top prize for iris its size and became a huge commercial success, opening the door for the scores of broken-color iris introduced since then, often with amusing names such as ‘Bewilderbeast’.

As our friend Mike Unser writes in his excellent blog post about the history of broken-color iris, “No two blooms are ever just alike, and they can create a very lively and exuberant effect in the flower garden.” To see for yourself, order ‘Loreley’ now for delivery in April!

Feb
5
2015

3 Experts, 3 Centuries, 3 Great Iris

Sure, we think our heirloom iris are awesome, but there’s no need to take our word for it. Here’s what experts in 1597, 1930, and 2012 had to say about three of our favorites:

‘Quaker Lady’, 1909

I. pallida ‘Dalmatica’ – In 1597 John Gerard praised this ancient iris in his landmark Herbal, saying it “hath leaves much broader, thicker, and more closely compact together” than other iris, “like wings, or the fins of a whale fish.” From these “riseth up a stalk of four feet high, as myself did measure oft times in my garden,” with “fair large flowers of a light blue” which “smell exceedingly sweet, much like the orange flower.”

‘Mrs. Horace Darwin’ – More than three centuries later, famed horticulturist John Wister writing in his book The Iris praised this petite beauty as one of three whites that “can never be omitted.” He called it “wonderfully free blooming,” and added that “it is unexcelled for massing and should be used in every garden in quantities.”

‘Quaker Lady’ – Last but not least, Kelly Norris who grew up on his family’s iris farm and now works at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden, praised this subtle flower in his 2012 Guide to Bearded Iris: Cultivating the Rainbow, saying it “has a soft-spoken princess charm that stops me in my tracks each spring. . . . If your garden needs a vintage touch in lovely pastel hues of bronze and lilac, look no further.”

Jun
13
2014

What’s That Iris? See 100s of Photos
and More at Revamped HistoricIris.org

What’s That Iris? See 100s of Photos and More at Revamped HistoricIris.org – www.OldHouseGardens.com

The already excellent website of the Historic Iris Preservation Society (HIPS) just got better – and a new address, www.HistoricIris.org – thanks to an ongoing upgrade by webmaster Christine Woodward.

Although I miss the charming look of the old site (by Mike Unser, a major hero of historic iris), the revised site offers a lot more information. My favorite section is still the Photo Gallery with descriptions from old catalogs, and now you can sort it by era (choose “pre-1900,” for example, and you’ll get a list of 49 names) or use the “Comparison Display” feature to look at two similarly colored iris side by side.

In the Resources section there are almost 60 reprinted articles dating from as far back as 1887, and don’t miss the former HIPS e-zine, Flags. The annual Rhizome Sale fund-raiser is online now, too, and if you move fast you can order from a list of over 300 heirloom varieties (including some that we donated) for just $6.50 each.

There’s a lot more to explore and enjoy at the HIPS site, and if you like what you see there I hope you’ll consider joining HIPS. It’s a terrific organization doing important work to preserve our garden heritage.

Jan
8
2014

Who’s That Growing in My Garden?
“Singularly Fearless” Mrs. George Darwin

Who’s That Growing in My Garden? “Singularly Fearless” Mrs. George Darwin

For the first time this spring we’re offering the elegant little iris called ‘Mrs. George Darwin’.

Like its equally wonderful sister-in-law ‘Mrs. Horace Darwin’ which we also offer, it was bred in the late 1800s by Sir Michael Foster, a Cambridge physiology professor who laid the foundations for modern iris by crossing garden forms with unusual varieties — including the first tetraploids — sent to him by missionaries and travelers.

But who was Mrs. George Darwin?

Wikipedia offers a short biography along with a charming portrait of her dressed all in white, like her namesake iris. Philadelphia-born Martha du Puy — who was always known as Maud — met her husband while visiting relatives in England. George was the son of the great Charles Darwin and a noted astronomer at Cambridge where the young couple became lifelong friends with Foster.

I learned a lot more in the entertaining Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood written by Maud’s daughter Gwen Raverat.

Her mother’s “casual happy-go-luckiness . . . was one of her most attractive qualities,” Raverat writes, but she was also “singularly fearless” and “always on the side of progress,” with a “sturdy American belief in independence” that made her “encourage us to do things for ourselves, unlike the well brought up English children of our class, some of whom did not know that you could make a bed yourself.” When Maud died in 1947 at the age of 88, her obituary noted her campaigning for women police officers.

Although iris aren’t mentioned in the 66-page preview of Period Piece at Google Books, there is a funny account of Maud’s first meeting with Foster, who seemed a bit tipsy. Even better, Raverat’s description of Maud’s physical appearance suggests why Foster named this particular white iris with its touches of gold and purple for her. “My mother . . . had golden-brown hair and dark blue eyes and such a lovely complexion that people often thought that she was made up.”

Dec
11
2013

Toast the Holidays with . . . Heirloom Iris?

Toast the Holidays with . . . Heirloom Iris? – www.OldHouseGardens.com

With the curiosity of a scientist and the writing skills of a master story-teller, Amy Stewart is one of my favorite authors. In her 2013 New York Times best-seller The Drunken Botanist, she explores the hundreds of “plants that create the world’s great drinks,” from barley and hops to obscurities such as quandong, sloe berry, and even a couple of centuries-old iris:

“The pharmacy and perfumery of Santa Maria Novella, established by Dominican friars in Florence in 1221, gained notoriety for its use of the rhizomes of iris. They were not the first – Greek and Roman writings mention it – but their perfumes, cordials, and powders contained liberal doses of this rare and precious substance.

Florentina, 1500 – www.OldHouseGardens.com
Florentina, 1500

“Orris was popular not so much for its fragrance – although it does contain a compound called irone that gives it a faint violet smell – but as a fixative, holding other fragrances or flavors in place by contributing a missing atom that would otherwise make the fragrance volatile and easily released from the solution it is suspended in.

“None of this chemistry was understood at first. Perfumers and distillers would also not have understood why the rhizomes had to dry for two to three years before they become effective as a fixative. We now know that it takes that long for a slow oxidation process to occur, . . [which] causes irone to form . . . .

“Only about 173 acres of orris are cultivated worldwide. Most of the orris is either I. pallida ‘Dalmatica’, grown in Italy, or . . . I. germanica var. Florentina, grown in Morocco, China, and India. I. germanica ‘Albicans’ is also used . . . .

Pallida Dalmatica, 1597 – www.OldHouseGardens.com
Pallida Dalmatica, 1597

“To extract the orris, the rhizome must first be pulverized and steam-distilled to produce a waxy substance called orris butter, or beurre d’iris. Then alcohol is used to extract an absolute, which is . . . a stronger version of an essential oil.

“Orris is found in nearly every gin and in many other spirits. Its popularity in perfume is due to the fact that it not only holds the fragrance in place but clings to the skin as well. It also happens to be a very common allergen, which explains why allergy sufferers might be sensitive to cosmetics and other fragrances – as well as gin.”

Dec
5
2012

Pallida Dalmatica
in the Fields of Italy (and Your Garden)

Pallida Dalmatica in the Fields of Italy (and Your Garden) – www.OldHouseGardens.com

The grape-scented, lavender-blue iris known as I. pallida ‘Dalmatica’ has been used in perfumery since ancient times, and it’s still being farmed for that purpose today – as our good customer Debbie Hughes of Wellsville, Kansas, discovered while vacationing in Tuscany. Debbie’s photo of a field of Iris pallida (above) inspired us to learn more, and a Google search led us to the Sagrona vineyard, “a small family vineyard in the heart of Chianti” where I. pallida is grown amid the grapes as it has been for centuries.

I. pallida ‘Dalmatica’

As you’ll see at Sagrona.com, it’s not the iris flowers that are harvested but the rhizomes. Peeled by hand and dried for two to five years, they develop a violet-like scent and fixative properties that preserve the chemical structure of other fragrances, prolonging their aroma. Ground and distilled, a ton of dried rhizomes – known as orris root – yields 4.5 pounds of a thick, oily, and very expensive substance called orris butter which is still widely used in making high-end fragrances – and gin.

But there are many other reasons to grow this great old iris. “Among its sterling qualities,” writes Sydney Edison in A Patchwork Garden, “are a tenacious resistance to borers, stems strong enough to support the medium-sized blossoms, and superb gray-green foliage that is an asset in the garden instead of an eyesore. . . . A wild species found originally in Dalmatia [roughly the former Yugoslavia], Iris pallida appears somewhere in the family tree of most modern cultivars but it has none of their faults. . . . I prefer this lovely, deliciously scented hand-me-down to all other tall bearded irises.”

Mar
4
2010

Saving Local Heirlooms
at the Pickle Barrel House Iris Garden

Saving Local Heirlooms at the Pickle Barrel House Iris Garden – www.OldHouseGardens.com

Some of the most exciting heirloom flowers aren’t found in catalogs or gardens. They’re just out there, in the wild, the last reminders of houses and gardeners that are long gone.

In a small town on the shores of Lake Superior, our friend Nancy McDonald decided to collect some of these relics and display them in a living museum of local garden history. Her charming, photo-filled account of the Pickle Barrel House Historic Iris Garden – home now to “Linnamaki Purple,” “Baker Grade” (from the site of a railroad switchman’s cabin), and other “noids” – is an inspiring story that may get you saying, “I could do that!”

Jan
16
2009

No Need to Buy a Monet, Just Garden Like Him!

No Need to Buy a Monet, Just Garden Like Him! – www.OldHouseGardens.com

For the last twenty years of his life, Monet painted only one subject: his gardens in Giverny.

Many bulbs played a leading role there, and it seems his taste for bulbs was shaped, at least in part, by financial difficulties in his early years.

In Monet: The Gardener (2002), Sidney Eddison writes: “Today, water lilies continue to float on the pond at Giverny. In May, irises in every imaginable shade of blue and violet bloom in their long, narrow beds; in June, roses smother the metal arches along the front walk. By midsummer, gladioli stand tall among the nasturtiums, which have begun their headlong rush toward the middle of the path. And in the fall, dahlias lavish their rich colors on the beds.”

In the same book, Robert Gordon writes of Monet’s early career: “Given his precarious finances and the temporary nature of his abodes, many of the plants he chose were annuals ... or corms, such as gladiolus, which can be dug up in the fall and saved from year to year.

“At Argenteuil, Monet planted gladiolus corms by the hundreds. In a painting simply titled Gladioli of 1876, ... [Monet’s wife] Camille ... gazes wistfully at cheerful ranks of pink, red, and bicolor flowers.... Two years later, in a work depicting Monet’s new garden at Vetheuil, gladioli appear again, but this time growing in decorative blue-and-white ceramic containers — a reminder of the impermanent nature of these early gardens. The same containers ultimately found a home at Giverny.”

Nov
21
2008

If Javelinas Roam Your Garden, Plant Iris!

If Javelinas Roam Your Garden, Plant Iris! – www.OldHouseGardens.com

Though we didn’t include bearded iris on our recent list of animal-resistant bulbs, our good customer Louise Coulter of Payson, Arizona, emailed us to vouch for them:

“In my area which is at 5,000 feet in Arizona‘s northern section there is an animal called javelina or wild pig. With cloven hoofs, tusks, and large foraging families, it devastates unprotected bulbs in gardens – except for iris. Seems they can’t eat iris. So at thousands of homes here, where the yards are unfenced, iris naturalize and are ubiquitous.”

Loading