Almanac Article

A Few Notes on the Past and Present of the Pacific Coast Iris in the United Kingdom

Arthur Jervis, Staffordshire, England
Almanac, Spring 2000 Vol.28, No.2: 8-10
[Adapted and slightly modified for the web; Photos: A. Jervis]

I offer a few personal thoughts and observations on the Iris family in the United Kingdom using my own very limited experience growing Pacific Coast Iris.


Widespread interest in the iris family as a garden plant in the United Kingdom seems very low at the present time. The climate is much different than in California, and tends to result in foliage becoming unpleasant to look at in the autumn and winter. Removing damaged and unhealthy leaves, especially with the Bearded and Sibiricas groups, helps keep the clumps looking reasonable. But this may be seen as being too large a price for the short flower period, so the average gardener is unwilling to grow more than the odd plant or two.


Another problem is that most UK gardens nowadays are small, so plants are chosen to give the longest period of interest. Pacific Coast iris are less demanding in time as their foliage tends to remain healthier. But they are not well known to the general public, so they remain as plants only the more adventurous or dedicated gardeners would have.


Iris innominata, and I. hartwegii, have been known in the gardens since the turn of the nineteenth century. But their culture was not well understood, so I believe up to the 1950's only a few enthusiasts paid much attention to the species. W. R. Dykes, the famous English irisarian, wrote in 1913 that the California group iris remained little grown as they did not lend themselves to the British climate and were difficult to transplant. But he did mention that they set seed readily and that seedlings would transplant well.


In the 1960's and throughout the 1970's, Mrs. Marjorie Brummitt hybridized and showed her Pacifica hybrids. Mrs. Brummitt was practically the only person doing such work. She produced a series of hybrids, some thirty in number over 20 years. Her crosses were from I. douglasiana x I. innominata, though in later years other material may have been incorporated. She won the British Iris Society's Dykes medal in 1976 for her NONAME, described as a primrose yellow, carrying two buds per stem. Some of her Banbury series are still available from selected commercial lists.


The late 1970's saw little further breeding, except by Miss Nora Scopes. At that time I myself became aware of the plants. I had received a nursery catalogue from Blooms of Bressingham Gardens in Norfolk which listed pot grown plants of I. innominata, and I purchased a few.


At that time, Thompson and Morgan of Ipswich Suffolk were offering mixed seeds of Pacifica hybrids listed as "Orchid Iris". I received a packet in the early spring but met with little success. I believe now that the seeds were not too fresh. But the plants I had received from Blooms of Bressingham Gardens flowered for me in later years. I then grew more interested in the TBI, and it was not until years later that I again became interested in the Pacific Coast group.


Mr. Ivor Knowles, a notable member and one time president of the British Iris Society, wrote a short article in the British Iris Society yearbook proposing standards to which breeders might aim in order to make the plants more accessible to the gardening public. They should be fully hardy, with upright flower stems each carrying 4 buds or more per stem, heads held above foliage, medium to large flowers, with wide falls and significant standards. Mr. Knowles' BLUE BALLERINA is still available. He received an Award of Merit and the Hugh Miller Trophy for this hybrid of a non-bearded species.


Problems with reestablishment of small divisions seem to keep commercial nurseries from propagating and distributing Pacific Coast iris to a wider public market. I have found that, provided the divisions made are of a substantial size and include as much soil as possible, they reestablish as well as any hardy plant. Late October or March seems to me the time to achieve the best results.


Mrs. B. Corneille raised a notable hybrid, ARNOLD SUNRISE and was given a First Class Certificate in 1981 by the Joint Iris Committee. WA Humphreys of Nottingham UK distributed it.

We met Mr. Humphreys in the late 1970s. At that time he was showing a wide selection of bulbous iris and some of the Banbury hybrids at the Royal Horticultural Society halls in London. I visited him at his nursery in Arnold in Nottingham and took delivery of a few plants of the Banbury series, some ARNOLD SUNRISE plus a few unnamed seedlings, I believe, of Mr. Humphreys own raising. As I recall he thought the best time to divide and transplant was late October. Most of the small divisions I received did reestablish themselves and went on to flower in later years.


Mr. R. A. Wise was one of the finest exhibitors of TB iris for over 40 years, winning most of the available cups and trophies. In the 1980's he crossed some Ghio introductions with the Brummitt Banbury series to produce his Pinewood series. Mr. Wise's PINEWOOD AMETHYST received an Award of Garden Merit.


Seeds and plants arriving from the United States of America have had their part to play. In 1993, Lady Skelmersdale of Broadleigh Bulbs registered some twenty names of her hybrids. She still lists and shows many of them today. I ordered a few in the middle 1980's as some were being offered prior to 1993. I was pleased with their performance, and they are winter hardy in my north Staffordshire garden.


Iris enthusiasts discussed the prospects for the Pacific Coast Iris at a recent meeting in Kent in the UK. In view of continuing problems wirh vegetative propagation and the lack of commercial interest, they felt the plants would remain in the hands of a few interested gardeners only. We have yet to resolve the questions of hardiness and the most appropriate time to divide plants.


In 1992, I received as a gift from a friend, Mr. John Trinder, a quantity of seeds directly from Mr. Joe Ghio. The seed was fresh and germinated very well, and I placed some 150 plants in nursery rows. Some were lost in the first winter as a result of frost lifting them out of the soil (at that age their root system was still small, and they were not yet well anchored into the soil). There were a few further failures in the second winter, but I managed to grow most of them to flowering size.


In the spring of the third season I had a diverse selection of plants ranging from eight to eighteen inches. Some had good flower stems held above the foliage, while others were not so good.


Space is limited in my home garden, so I selected only eight plants. I feel that color is in the eye of the beholder, so my seedling selection may not have been everyone's choice. I hope those I kept are an improvement on the older hybrids I have seen in the UK, although my experience is very limited. I understand my friend's plants raised from the rest of the seeds from Joe Ghio produced a higher percentage of non-hardy seedlings. As a result, he has strong reservations as to the hardiness of the Pacific Coast Iris in the UK.


This year I have received more seeds from this group and I hope to see more good seedlings in the coming years.


I must thank my good friend John Trinder for his support in the subject matter of this article.

Abbreviations and Definitions supplied by John Trinder:

AGM: Award of Garden Merit awarded by the Royal Horticultural Society. Plants are judged after trials, mainly at the Society's gardens at Wisley. The AGM replaces an older award of Award of Merit.

JIC: Joint Iris Committee. A group with members from the British Iris Society and Royal Horticultural Society that judges and makes awards to irises mainly trialed at Wisley.

Hugh Miller Trophy: The British Iris Society award for the best non-bearded iris hybrid of the year.