In a New Jersey Garden, The Iris Reigns Supreme

Spring has come late to many parts of the East Coast. The bright parade of flowers including narcissus, tulip, and dogwood has in its usual sequence been delayed.

Nevertheless, from now through the first week of June, 4,000 varieties of iris from dwarfs to tall bearded varieties are bursting into bloom in a rainbow arc on a hillside in Upper Montclair, N.J.

Designated a national historic landmark, the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens, now in their 70th year, are not just a botanists' library of current and historic irises, but an example of continuing civic involvement and pride. They are maintained by members of the Citizens' Committee, the Montclair Garden Club, the Township of Montclair, along with several hundred volunteers.

Set in Mountainside Park, the gardens were established in 1927 to honor Frank H. Presby, a noted horticulturist and a founder of the American Iris Society.

Mr. Presby developed iris seedlings and hybrids, naming one for his wife, Harriet. Another hybridizer named one for Presby's daughter Mildred. Today they grow side-by-side in a corner of the gardens.

But the gardens were the life work of a local gardening guru, Barbara Walther. In 1921 she and her husband lived adjacent to the last stretch of fields and woodlands left in a town that was in the midst of a building boom.

Mrs. Walther spearheaded fund-raising to purchase the lands as parks. For 50 years, she trained volunteers from the Montclair Garden Club as well as youngsters and retirees on how to care for the garden. When she died in 1977, support began to erode. Funds for two full-time gardeners were pruned from the town budget in 1981.

Today volunteers under the guidance of a paid superintendent tend the gardens, keeping an eye on the beardless Siberian, Japanese, Louisiana, and Spuria varieties that grow along the old brook that sometimes runs through the garden.

During bloom season they carefully check the irises to make sure the flowers match the markers and bed book records.

A group of inner-city children is regularly bused to the gardens to plant and tend their own vegetables and flowers. Young people arriving to tour the gardens are given special tours.

They smell various plants for vanilla or peanut butter or lemon pie scents, and to check the colors of the blossoms. At the end of the tour some even learn how to hybridize an iris plant in their own gardens at home.

Each year a children's art show is held, and throughout the high bloom season, professional and amateur artists flock here to paint or sketch. On any fine weekend in late May, photographers are as numerous as fireflies that appear at dusk.

Last year 5,000 iris lovers came from 35 states and 25 countries. Visitors from Greece, Austria, France, New Zealand, South Africa, and Japan plan pilgrimages to the gardens.

And the sister city in England - Barnet-Finchley, from where 52 children were sent to Montclair during the dark days of World War II for safe-keeping - now maintain a garden of rhizomes donated by Montclair's Presby Gardens to Friary Park outside London.

Named for the Greek goddess of the rainbow, and symbol of both Egyptian pharaohs and French kings, the iris was used to make face powder in ancient China and various remedies for some American Indians.

But for schoolchildren, bridal parties, and families, its best use is less utilitarian: to delight the eye and refresh the spirit.

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