Reticulata Iris - A
Whole New World
The First Iris To Bloom
A few facts
before we begin:
<![endif]>Reticulata Iris are one of the first flowers to
bloom each year, starting just as the snow disappears.
<![endif]>Available commercially in shades of blue and
purple, along with the lemon yellow Iris danfordiae,
and pale yellow Iris winogradowii
<![endif]>Primarily from eastern Turkey, Iran,
and the Caucasus mountains where its very dry
in the summer
<![endif]>Can provide 2, even 3 flowers per bulb in
succession, if the bulbs are large enough.
is notorious for 'shattering'; meaning breaking up into a lot of rice
<![endif]>Many of the Dutch hybrids will bloom for two or
three years and eventually die out in our climate
<![endif]>Try sandy top soil in a well drained location
with a reasonable space between the bulbs.
<![endif]>A little bit of low nitrogen fertilizer at the
beginning of the bloom season is good for bulb regeneration
<![endif]>It takes 5 years to go from a seed to a
My goal: To
create new colors and patterns that will do well in North American gardens.
20 years ago, in 1985 and 1986, I
went plant collecting in Turkey. My main goal was to find a diploid form of
the lemon yellow Iris danfordiae. In each of those years I traveled 9,000 kM
over two week periods, getting close to the Russian, Iraq and Syrian borders. The trips were successful in a number of
ways. First and foremost, I was very
fortunate near the end of my first trip to find Iris danfordiae with the help of some locals. Second, I was able to collect a Reticulata
that was pictured in Brian Mathew's 'The Iris' as being from near Erzurum. This is the Reticulata that I refer to as the
Çat species, which has become very important from a hybridizing
perspective. And third, to observe in
the wild a host of other bulbs, including Juno Iris.
Why collect diploid danfordiae? In 1961 E.B. Anderson crossed Irises winogradowii and histrioides to create the lovely, but sterile, Katharine
Hodgkin. The cross was repeated by
others and we now also have 'Frank Elder' and 'Sheila Ann Germany' in
commerce. I wanted to use danfordiae to see what hybrids its lemon
yellow would yield. Over the late 80's
and early 90's I made hundreds of crosses which produced over 4800 seeds,
however most didn't even germinate. Of
particular note were crosses with Iris sophenensis,
which I was very fortunate to have been given by the late Frank Kalich of Albuquerque New
1994 sixteen clones bloomed from three crosses made in 1989. Disappointingly they were all blues. Some had a bit of yellow influence, but if
anything this gave them a muddy appearance.
Clearly nothing like the lovely 'Katharine Hogkin' that I had been
hoping for. The expectation at that time
was that they would be sterile. I felt
that if anything was going to work it would be if I intercrossed the
clones. By early summer I was able to
report to Brian Mathew and others that I had produced 130 seeds from 11
successful crosses. Five years later, in
1999, two of these bloomed. The very
first was a gorgeous creamy white with blue markings and a touch of yellow
(94-HW-1). I couldn't believe my
eyes. Absolutely stunning! The blue had been turned off and the yellow
had been turned off, revealing an underlying pattern. The other clone was simply a small pale blue
of no interest.
The next year I was particularly
amazed by a backcross onto danfordiae
that I categorize as 'spotted light blue-green' (96-BN-1). To me it's absolutely gorgeous. Over the next few years further hybrids
bloomed and I was able to classify them into the following five categories: Yellow (danfordiae-like), Blue
(light blue to dark blue), Yellow-Blue
(from yellow with blue veining, through green, all the way to brown), White (typically with an underlying blue
or green pattern; on rare occasions yellow), and in the case of backcrossing
onto danfordiae, the occasional 'Spotted Light Blue-Green.' I was able to determine from a high level
perspective that two dominant genes are responsible for turning blue on and
off, and one recessive gene for yellow.
Going into 2003 I was wondering
if all I was going to get was simply more of the same.
Back in 1988 one cross I made was
between danfordiae and the Çat
species. Four small clones eventually
bloomed. They largely looked like their
Çat parent, and they didn't increase very well.
In my mind I thought there was a chance something interesting would
result if they could be crossed with the danfordaie
x sophenensis clones. Indeed, that was the case: in 2003, 16 clones
from 3 1998 crosses bloomed, eventually increasing to 30 clones from 4
crosses. In particular, the 11 from the
cross 98-NP were amazing. They ranged in
colour from pale yellow to almost black (with blue style arms and yellow around
the fall ridge, so a natural name would be Storm), including one that I call
chameleon (pale yellow-green). There was
also a spotted blue, a white with navy marking, a white with infused yellow,
and a a veined brown on yellow ground.
The last three were solids: a purple, a plum, and a dark red. Almost all were ones I felt could be
introduced; a good sign, but there is a practical reality to how many can be
introduced over a period. Especially considering
some of the other lovely hybrids I have.
The three other
crosses all had small flowers, but three were of particular interest. 98-OO-1 was apricot in colour, however it
wasn't sun-fast. 98-EO-2 and 98-ND-2
were also apricot. Clearly we will one
day have orange Reticulatas!
A few more years have passed and
I'm just starting to see 3rd generation hybrids. Quite a lot still fall into the 5 categories,
but slowly but surely more are breaking away.
Of particular interest were this year's pale yellow with green spots
02-GR-3 and the lovely yellow and white 01-FS-2. Last year's favorite was a blue, but oh what
a blue: 01-IV-3. Wide white fall blade,
dotted and veined blue with a wide bright yellow throat. Style ribs are dark blue changing to greenish
along their length, with a white ridge.
The large white style lobes have faint blue lines.
At this point it is still a case
that any cross could be a break through and be just the right combination to
pull out a wonderful new expression. A small parent with no standards could end
up giving lots of large children with typical standards. Or it could yield a whole new color or
pattern if combine with the right other parent.
It may not have all of the other characteristics that are desired, but
they can be added in future. The
difficult thing is, you can't say for sure what you are looking for until you
see what is possible. Once you have
achieved that, then you ask "where can I go next?"
Two second generation crosses
involving the first 'spotted light blue-green' have bloomed. Of interest are one clone from each that have
taken the 'spotted light-blue-green' theme further. I am looking forward to pursuing this further
in future and seeing where it takes me.
I now have some 140 whites. Some are more beautiful than others. For example, the shade of white or cream may
be so much more striking with the underlying shade of blue or green markings,
and the amount and size of spotting may be just that much more
appropriate. The width of the fall can
also make a difference in a flower's appeal.
Ideally what we want is to plant
a bulb and after a few years have it form a clump of perhaps 5 or 6 flowers
which consistently bloom year-after-year without any maintenance. There have been a number of times this has
happened for me with small bulbs left behind when I replant part of the
garden. On a number of occasions when I
dig these clumps up and replant them they do poorly (perhaps because I don't
give them enough space). I haven't yet
tried removing say half the clump and leaving the remaining bulbs as
undisturbed as possible.
For a number of years I've been
trying to get the Dutch interested in my hybrids. The idea is to have them grow the bulbs
commercially while I concentrate on hybridizing. Unfortunately several of the growers that had
been testing my hybrids have dropped out.
I'm not clear why, particularly with the monumental breakthrough I have
achieved. In particular I am still
working with Wim de Goede and I am confident that a number of my hybrids will
be introduced. Wim is critical of the
fact that many of my hybrids have no standards (simply a reality of using danfordiae; personally I don't believe
it really matters e.g. 02-GR-3; but they do come back e.g. 02-GR-2). Wim is also critical that my flowers tend to
be on the small side (35 - 50 mm),
due again to diploid danfordiae as
well as the Çat species. Small can be
nice. From a large-scale commercial
perspective they should be 70 mm or more.
I will just point out that a
significant number of years are required to build up stock. Take for example 02-GH-3. Assume the number of bloom-size bulbs doubles:
It would be at least 2021 before
it could be introduced from a large scale perspective.
Of course Wim is well along the
way to building up stock of several of my hybrids.
Ideally, well-spaced bulbs should
over the course of a number of years form clumps, which continue to bloom year
after year and not require any maintenance.
It is key that they be in a well drained location. Slightly sandy topsoil would be perfect.
Plant the base of the bulbs about
2 3/4 inches deep.
If you are replanting smaller bulbs they should be shallower. A bit of mulch such as straw can be helpful
to prevent the bulbs from heaving due to freeze-thaw cycles in early spring.
A little bit of low nitrogen fertilizer at the
beginning of the bloom season is good for bulb regeneration
I have opened a door to a whole
new world. One that no one knew
existed. And I am only just beginning to
For more photos, etc. visit www.Reticulatas.com
Previous article: 'An Adventure
With Reticulatas', July 2000 Bulletin