Sunday, June 03, 2007

Bearded Iris

What’s blooming in the area: Russian olive, catalpa, white locust, locoweed, oxalis, yellow sweet clover, four-winged saltbush, honeysuckle, silver lace vine, red hot poker, short yucca, datura, oriental poppy, peony, fern-leaf globemallow, purple salvia, white evening primrose, scarlet beeblossom, purple mat flower, tumble mustard, bindweed, wooly plantain, goatsbeard, hawkweed, native and common dandelion, Apache plume, pink shrub, tea and other hybrid roses, rice, needle, and three awn grass; first batch of hay cut and baled.
What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Miniature rose, iris, golden spur columbine, hartwegii, perky Sue, fern-leaf yarrow, chocolate flower, blanket flower, coreopsis; buds on coral beardtongue; nasturtium seeds emerge.

Looking east: Dr. Huey rose, coral bells, thrift, pinks, small-leaf soapwort peaked, snow-in-summer, creeping baby’s breath, pink evening primrose, pink salvia, rockrose, winecup, California poppy, Mount Atlas daisy, Kellerer yarrow; one budded hollyhock reaches above my shoulder; squash seeds have first leaves.

Looking south: Weigela, beauty bush, spirea; rugosa and floribunda roses; buds on Blaze and daylily; raspberry forming fruit.

Looking west: Flax, catmint, baptista, purple beardtongue; buds on sea lavender, Valerie Finnis artemisia and Husker beardtongue.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, snapdragons, petunia, Dahlberg daisy, marigold, sweet 100 tomato.
Inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë, zonal geranium; buds on coral honeysuckle.
Animal sightings: Quail, hummingbird, small insects hovered around flowers at dusk and dawn; bees in beauty bush in afternoons; grasshoppers getting to be a problem; horse was eating a volunteer cottonwood in field last Sunday.
Weather: Temperatures warmed, and some weak plants died; whatever rain was in the area dropped only enough water to pattern sidewalks and feed air roots and thorns. Last actual rain, May 25.

Weekly update: My bearded iris taunt me with how little I know about how they are bred and mass produced.

Normally, I would only care if I heard something unethical was being done, like overharvesting from the wild. But, in 1996, I bought some Superstition rhizomes from a mass market catalog that were dark indigo in the shade and luminescent in the sun in the spring. The year after the petals were greenish brown.

My curiosity was quite natural. I wanted to know if my plants were diseased. I moved them to an isolated area where the color was less discordant and they’ve colonized the slope. This year the flowers were more coffee than dirty brass.

Now I have another puzzle. A white iris started blooming across the ditch from them last Saturday. These are the first flowers since the sword-shaped leaves showed in the area a few years ago.

The plant should be the untrue child of a nearby cheap yellow hybrid, but more likely is the offspring of my only surviving white iris, an Immortality growing some 25' to the northeast behind a spirea, which normally is upwind.

Long ago, nature advertized it would inbreed Iridaceae species and permit recessive traits like white coloring to self-select until stable varieties emerged. J. C. Wister determined Iris germanica, my bearded iris, developed from natural matings between blue Iris pallida and yellow Iris variegata. The bluish-white Iris florentina is now recognized as a spontaneous creation of germanica.

It took a Cambridge biologist to make the next logical step: Around 1889, Michael Foster began experimenting with pollen from new species discovered by the expanding British Empire Over time, shorter bearded iris and remontants appeared, as well as more varied colors. Now, Richard Ernst at Cooley’s Gardens is asking Oregon State molecular biologists to go farther, and introduce genes from different genera into Iris germanica.

All of which may explain my white iris. Lloyd Zurbrigg released it in 1982 as a descendant of Gibson Girl, a two-season pink iris introduced by Jim Gibson in 1946. He, in turn, was inspired by Hans Sass who experimented with dwarf species to produce shorter stalks for Nebraska winds and, incidentally, developed the reblooming purple Autumn King in 1924. Sometime during those years when ideas were diffusing from scientists and techniques were spreading among breeders, the innovation of florentina was duplicated.

I still don’t know what transformed my fifteen Superstition into greenish brown interlopers, but I can sympathize with growers who were testing new techniques to mass produce the 1977 cultivar from Schreiner’s Gardens. After all, I’ve just spotted another unexpected set of leaves, and have to wait at least three years to see if they represent another discardable experiment by nature or something nearer Immortality.

If anyone does know what methods grower used that would cause an advertised iris to metamorphose into something else, please let me know.

Oregon State University and Cooley’s Gardens. Zoran Jeknic, Richard C. Ernst and Tony H. H. Chen, Iris Transformation Method, patent granted 2002.

Wister, John C. The Iris, 1927, cited by Flora of North America Association. "Iris germanica Linnaeus."

Photograph: White iris, probably Immortality, 28 May 2007 around 6:15 am.

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