A Dust of Pollen Here And There and Voila!, A New Iris Is Born
A family is dedicated to this universal flower
For more than 35 years, his strong hands delivered calves into the world and tossed hay bales into a barn. Today, they gingerly dust pollen onto flower stigmas.Skip to next paragraph
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These are the hands of John White, a former dairy farmer, now iris fancier and hybridizer, who, with every delicate brush with nature, hopes to create new varieties of flowers; ones that are hardier, more beautiful, and even more graceful in form.
When Mr. White retired and sold his 300-acre Maine farm in 1976 along with 150 heifers, he relocated five miles away in a secluded wooded area.
From there, he followed Thomas Jefferson's advice: "The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture."
Immediately, White started gardening around his new home and fell in love again with a plant he had raised for a short time in high school, one of the oldest ever cultivated - the iris. (Historians claim it dates back to 1500 BC.) After he and his wife, Evelyn, dabbled with 150 of them, they attended their first flower show.
Evelyn remembers: "We walked into the judging area with a few flowers I had clutched in my hands - no vase, no water, no names, that's how novice we were!"
Still, they were encouraged. Before long, she and John added grow lights and a microscope to a downstairs room in their home.
Eventually, White's successful crossings created not only more beautiful and robust flowers, but also earned him recognition by the American Iris Society along with the honor of naming his nine creations.
Around the world, nowadays, there is an iris in bloom every month of the year, although midsummer is when most of them are at their peak.
"There is no flower so universally adapted as the iris," says John Wister, the first president of the American Iris Society and one of the foremost breeders in the United States. "From New Brunswick to Florida we find it the mainstay of the hardy garden."
The genus comprises 200 species, with thousands of varieties and hybrids.
Over the years, John and Evelyn and son Ted - all master gardeners - have planted more than 5,000 irises on 2-1/2 acres of land flanked by pine forest and deer. (They recently put in fencing to keep curious and hungry deer at a distance.)
A broad swath of flowers borders their driveway and offers a spectacular color show. The dramatic burst of the tall bearded variety welcomes visitors.
The flowers, as many as seven to a stem, have a fluffy, tissue-paper look about them, lined up like chiffon evening gowns on a dress rack.
Walking through rows of this pastel kingdom one is formally introduced to the "beardeds" or what horticulturists call the "queens" - the fairest of all irises.
There's Lemon Mist, Honky Tonk Blues, Silverado, Lacey Snowflake, and Pearl Chiffon, to name but a few.
How do they grow? All in a row - 1 to 2 feet apart with numbers and names identifying each one like babies lined up in a nursery. Seedlings, as many as 1,200, grow in trays on two picnic tables in back of the house awaiting their turn in the rows.
Author and dedicated irisarian Molly Price describes the common backyard scenario:
"In practice, many a mildly curious gardener has made one cross 'just to see what will happen,' " she explains, "and before he knows it, he has purchased the vacant lot next door ... for the tremendous batches of seedlings that were crowding his flats."
Thinking up names