The Intersection of Plants and People
In the world of hybridizers of the modern Bearded iris, there are stars, and they have their groupies. One wouldn’t know it from speaking with these breeders — some of them working in a backyard garden, others working with hundreds of acres for a full-fledged business — as they generally are a humble, laid-back lot. But in catalogs specializing in irises, their last names pop up again and again: Keppel, Johnson, Black, Schreiner, Blyth, Ghio, Cayeux, Sutton, and Van Liere, among many others. To devotees of the modern Bearded irises, the latest creations from these hybridizers are something to anticipate as winter drags on towards spring. Starved for color, both hybridizers and their fans live for the spring-through-summertime blooms, and for the endless combinations of color and pattern with which irises delight and surprise.
Keith Keppel has won five Dykes Medals, the topmost honor bestowed on iris breeders by the American Iris Society (AIS), yet he considers what he does “a hobby.” Though iris breeding has never been a main source of income for Keppel, he has devoted his life to making crosses, and working with the children of the resulting seeds to make something “that nobody else has ever seen.”
To support what he calls his “iris habit,” the now-retired Keppel worked for 31 years at the U.S. Post Office, first as a mail clerk, then as a floor supervisor overseeing the sorting of mail. When asked what has kept him hybridizing irises for 60 years, Keppel drily replies, “Stupidity.”
“It’s like gambling,” he says. “It’s an addiction. If every seedling is going to be different, it’s the excitement of what’s going to happen the next spring: are you going to get something that’s really exciting and different and good?”
There are many terms to use when describing a Bearded iris. Amoena, Bicolor, Self, Bitone, and Neglecta are some of the main descriptors for color, but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Some have veining in the three downward petals called the falls; some are edged as though by lace, in a contrasting color; some bleed like watercolors from one hue to another, to yet another. The three upward petals called standards can have the same variation as well, even though they may be a different shade or color completely from the falls. Which is why the iris was named, aptly, after the Greek goddess of the rainbow.
Keppel’s own Bearded iris obsession started in the 1950’s, when his mother’s friend gave the teenage boy some irises to plant. Keppel found a book at the library that explained how to grow iris from seed and how to develop different colors. He thought it sounded like fun, so he began making his own crosses. At age 25, his first introduction was ‘Humoresque,’ which was sold in 1962 by Melrose Gardens, a well-know iris grower at the time. Now in his seventies, Keppel still recalls the thrill he felt when, as a novice, one of his irises, ‘Babbling Brook’ was listed and pictured in color in Schreiner’s Iris Gardens catalog.
“Schreiner’s is sort of the top of the line,” Keppel explains. “And yeah, later on I got the Dyke’s Medal, but it’s just the idea that a big garden like Schreiner’s would take one of your irises and grow it and propagate it and sell it and distribute it, was just mind-boggling.”
Keppel’s home garden is on the outskirts of Salem, Oregon, about eight miles down the road from Schreiner’s Iris Gardens, a third-generation family business whose current hybridizer is Ray Schreiner, grandson of the founder, F.X. Schreiner. Compared with their 200-plus acre operation, Keppel says his two acres of iris are “small-scale” and, with self-mocking, “kinda pathetic.”
When the iris start blooming in spring, Keppel checks to see what’s coming up from his earlier crosses and makes more new crosses. And every year, like other hybridizers, Keppel puts out a little catalog of available plants for sale, while many of the cultivars he’s created over decades are still featured in Schreiner’s and other iris catalogs worldwide.
In a catalog, the highlight for most iris fans is the listing of Introductions — new irises that, like debutantes being shown off at a coming-out party, or concept cars being driven onstage for an auto show press conference — have never been shown to the public before. The hybridizers, behind the scenes, have been working on the debut for an average of six years, taking an unusual color combination in a bloom, but then working on the branching, form and substance — how the plant as a whole looks and performs in the garden.
To a born-and-bred hybridizer like Ray Schreiner, the best part of making crosses is “the excitement of creating a new and hopefully different or improved iris,” he explains via email. That means one hopeful cross will be re-crossed with varieties that have the features the hybridizer wants to see in the next generation. If it has a beautiful bloom but a scraggly stalk, the breeder might cross it with a cultivar that has better branching, and will repeat this process every spring in the hope that a child of the original mother plant will be a knockout, ready for its first catalog appearance.
When two irises are crossed, the pollen of one variety (considered the father in such a cross) is deposited onto the stigma of another variety (the mother plant). Once fertilized in this way, the ovary of the mother plant, just below the bloom, fills out like a pregnant belly. The swelling, egg-shaped pod of seeds dries over the summer months, going from a pea-green to a crispy-leaf brown. This is the what a hybridizer has been waiting for since spring — the harvest. When the pods are about to crack open from dryness, the hybridizer collects them, puts them in an envelope labelled with the seeds’ parents’ names, and sets it aside for planting that Fall.
In the spring the new seedlings come up, though they typically will not show their blooms for another year. It’s a waiting game, and from seed to introduction, it can take between a speedy five years to an average of seven years for a hybridizer to have something he’s willing to bring to the consumer, with enough product to share. The first batch of blooms from a single pod may show several genetic similarities — perhaps all blueish flowers — or it can be a riot of color differences and patterns. Like people, the children of the same mother and father iris can either look very “related” or they can look like there was an accidental switch in the garden shed. Whatever they look like, they are not genetically identical. That’s part of the fun of making crosses.
Robert Van Liere is a successful hybridizer and the owner of Iris4u Iris Garden, based in Colorado, and recently in Hamburg, Germany, as well, where his daughter, Jennifer Van Liere Dreyer, has expanded the family iris business. Van Liere, who goes by “Iris Bob,” has created somewhat of an oasis in what he describes as a “forgotten” working-class neighborhood in the southwest part of Denver.
Like Keppel, Van Liere also considers the hybridizing work a hobby, since his landscape maintenance business supports his devotion to Bearded irises. His work with Beardeds began about twenty years ago, when some customers requested that he plant pink irises in their gardens. On a trip to the mountains, Van Liere visited an iris grower to fill his customers’ request. Driving back the four hours to Denver with the pink irises in the car, he began to brainstorm.
“I said, ‘I can do that,’” he remembers, and decided to contact the iris grower when he returned home. “And so I called her up and said, ‘Send me everything you’ve got.’ I didn’t have any idea of the world of irises.”
Starting out with a whopping three hundred iris varieties, Van Liere grew the flowers in raised beds on a gravel parking lot at his landscaping storage facility in Denver. Running out of space, Van Liere eventually moved to the current location, where the public is welcome to stroll through the cheerful gardens during bloom time.
When Van Liere describes “iris people,” he laughingly calls them “crazy” and “fanatics.”
“There’s people that just come to feed their addiction,” he says of some of the bloom-time visitors. “They never buy — they don’t have any more yard. I mean, maybe they bought before, but now maybe they’re retired and they live in a condo, but they still have this addiction that they’ve got to come out and see the irises.”
Van Liere’s property includes a charming, yellow farmhouse he shares with his wife, Kay, and about two acres of iris, which bloom in Colorado’s climate from around Mother’s Day in May to early July.
On a spring day, Van Liere’s garden is buzzing with people who walk around in the steady Colorado sun, shaded by umbrellas provided by the entryway to the garden for just such relief. It’s clear that he enjoys the contact with customers, and he acknowledges feeling honored to have flowers that he’s developed in other people’s gardens.
When one customer asks how to best transplant some of his cultivars she’s had growing in her yard to a friend on the Western Slope, he answers in a stern deadpan, “No sharing!”
“Oh,” she says, looking somewhat embarrassed.
“Didn’t you read the contract?” he demands.
Her daughter reassures her, “He’s just teasing!” and Van Liere erupts in laughter. Later he tells me how pleased he is when his customers share his work, explaining, “I do it for my enjoyment and the consumer’s enjoyment.”
Hybridizer Thomas Johnson of Mid-America Garden in Salem, Oregon, remembers coming upon an iris field during a trip to New Zealand. The field’s owner happened to be growing several of Johnson’s hybrids.
“That was kind of cool to be on the other side of the world and think that something you’ve created is growing in their garden,” Johnson says.
A soft-spoken man with a gentle Canadian lilt, Johnson has won the Dykes Medal and is well-known among iris growers and iris followers for his cultivars. Johnson co-owns Mid-America Garden with fellow top hybridizer, Paul Black. Johnson also co-owns a nursery next-door called Sebright Gardens, which specializes in hostas, ferns, and epimediums. Between the two businesses, he’s managed to make a living as an iris breeder.
Johnson was living on a dairy farm in Central Alberta, Canada, when he began his foray into irises. While visiting an American Iris Society convention in the U.S., Johnson was encouraged to give iris breeding a try by Paul Black. Back home in Canada, Johnson cleared some of his cow pasture to make way for iris seedlings. He made about 150 crosses between individual plants, and out of those, about 100 seeds germinated in the spring, a disappointing number as Johnson recalls, since each seed pod can have between 35 and 50 seeds. But the odds of making so many crosses worked out, as he was able to introduce two new cultivars from his first attempts. ‘Border Control’ went on to win the AIS Knowlton Medal for Bearded Border varieties. ‘Hook,’ a Tall Bearded iris with dark plum standards, claret purple falls and orange gold beards, won an AIS Award of Merit.
In the U.S., many iris growers focus on producing the Tall Beardeds, whose flower stems can reach 27 to 41 inches in height. The other classes of Beardeds are popular as well, though considered by some to be less striking, as they are shorter in stature, with smaller blooms.
Many growers, like Schreiner’s Iris Gardens, Mid-America Garden, and Keith Keppel, have found a haven in the Pacific Northwest for growing Bearded irises. The balance of sun, moisture and rich, well-draining soil keeps the plants humming. But because the sun-loving Beardeds are known to take the abuse of drier climates, they can thrive just as easily in arid settings like Colorado or Texas, and in the variety of environments throughout the U.S., provided they’re not wallowing in boggy areas like their cousins the Japanese and Louisiana irises love to do.
While Bearded iris were first hybridized in England and France, the U.S. is currently the most active market for this type of iris. However, because iris hybridizers are a small group, their world is also a small one, and many of those competing in shows know one another.
The Dykes Medal originated in England, and was named after William Rickatson Dykes, a British botanist, horticulturist and author who helped to catalogue the different iris species.
Earning the medal is still a great honor in Britain, and there are gaps in years where awards were not given because the criteria for what makes an iris worthy of the honor are extremely precise. The French Iris Society (Société Française des Iris et plantes Bulbeuses) awarded its own Dykes Medal from 1928-1938. (The same star hybridizer, the late Ferdinand Cayeux, won the award every single year.) Currently, France holds an international competition every two years called Franciris. Similarly, the Italian Iris Society (La Società Italiana dell’Iris) collaborates with the city of Florence to hold the prestigious, annual International Iris Competition.
Other parts of the world where iris hybridizing and growing are active include Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Japan, Russia and other Slavic countries. In a testament to the national and international camaraderie of iris hybridizers, Keppel’s garden was buzzing this spring with “visiting bees.” Two hybridizers from Australia, including Australian Dykes Medal winner Barry Blyth, another Dykes Medal winner Joe Ghio from California, and Russian hybridizer and former president of the Russian Iris Society, Sergey Loktev, were all allowed the privilege of making crosses amongst Keppel’s rows of irises. It’s not an unusual springtime occurrence, and when the guests’ pods ripen at the end of summer, Keppel will label and send the seeds by mail back to their rightful breeders.
Keppel refers to the relationships among most hybridizers as a “friendly rivalry,” an idea that Thomas Johnson echoes with a laugh.
“There’s always competition, but it’s a friendly competition. It’s not a secretive, cutthroat, backstabbing sort of competition,” he says, adding that, “It’s probably one of the best groups of plant breeders that there are as far as sharing information, and very encouraging to anybody new that wants to start out.”
In France, perhaps the best-known growers of Bearded irises is the Cayeux family. The Cayeux farm is about an hour-and-a-half drive south of Paris, in a small village on the South bank of the Loire River called Poilly-lez-Gien. On about 49 acres of land, noted hybridizer Richard Cayeux grows cultivars, many of which were created by his family members, all the way back to his great-grandfather, Ferdinand. For his own new seedlings, Cayeux devotes about 2.5 acres, which he understandably explains, “is enough for one person.”
When making a cross, most hybridizers, including Cayeux, seem to agree that, while understanding a little bit of genetics can be helpful, simple observation and instinct play a part in matchmaking two iris to produce something more unique or better than the parent plants.
“During winter, I work with genetics in mind and during the blooming season, the instinct is back,” Cayeux explained via email. “Anyway, the results are the main thing. Though, Genetics is fine, I believe that instinct is as important.”
By examining different irises, the viewer can eventually identify certain traits that a hybridizer displays in his product time and again. For example, Cayeux’s irises have a little more ruffle in their petals than perhaps other modern iris do. They have a distinctly flirty, French flair, like dancers swinging their multi-layered skirts at the Moulin Rouge.
In Johnson’s creations, it’s clear that the hybridizer is not afraid to take chances and see what comes up with his crosses, but what he chooses to introduce reveals a love of subtle color transitions, right down to the fuzzy “beards” that lay on each downward petal. At first glance, ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ looks like a sweet, mostly pink iris with some white in the falls. On closer examination, the bloom has falls edged in a pink that matches the standards, with a nice contrasting “milk white” as the Mid-America Garden catalog describes, in the center of the falls. The beards are an unusual “half-tangerine and half-lilac.” It’s as though Johnson coaxed the bloom into providing extraordinary but complimentary hues.
Hybridizing Bearded irises requires as little or as much knowledge of botany and genetics as a breeder wants to focus on because it’s actually also a creative endeavor. Keppel remembers being given a test in high school that evaluated career possibilities for students.
“They would give you a whole bunch of choices like: would you rather herd sheep or be an usher in a theater? But there’s a whole series you go through and then they categorize you. And so I came out high in science and art, and I always thought how prophetic that was because breeding irises is really an artistic form of science or a scientific form of art.”
Similarly, Johnson says that plant breeding is a kind of craft.
“What’s fun about hybridizing irises,” he says, “is that there’s so many different colors. You’ve got that and then you’ve got all the different patterns. And they’re very complex flowers, so there are so many variables that go into it which makes them a lot of fun to breed, with so many possibilities.”
But like any other artist, how does a hybridizer know when his work is finished and ready for public display?
Van Liere, whose rejected seedlings are tossed, bloom and all, into a wheelbarrow headed for the compost heap, explains that picking a standout iris for introduction can be emotional.
“Some things will shout at you from across the garden, and you’ve got to go see,” Van Liere says. “Other things are a little more subtle. Some things that are beautiful you wished had more branching, then you internally agonize, ‘Well, should I introduce it?’”
After decades of hybridizing, Keppel seems to have made peace with his disappointments, but clearly he also maintains a perfectionism that keeps him introducing crosses that dazzle fans, even while he notices every flaw.
“I don’t think that I have ever put out an iris that in some way or another I haven’t had regrets about because I haven’t gotten the perfect one yet,” he says.
Keppel says his idea of iris perfection is, “Something that you’ll never reach, and if you ever did, you’d die of shock.”