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.
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
"Any new flower must be different or better to be 'introduced,'" according to White. Then to be registered and commercialized, it needs a name. The American Iris Society registers the new irises and publishes an up-to-date list of flowers.
Last year White introduced and named Dirigo Snowflake, a soft white grower that floats over its foliage like a huge snowflake. He crossed irises Ol' Man River with Continuing Pleasure. ("Dirigo" is Latin for "I lead" and is the Maine state motto). Names must be original and consist of no more than three words.
White's 1989 cross, Neat Trick, was named serendipitously.
This burst of blue with streaks of white was a breakthrough in color and vigor for Siberian irises. White's son-in-law had been visiting one day and remarked that the flower was "neat." "I added 'trick' and a name was born." White exclaims.
Author Price recognizes "pollen daubing" as a popular sport among iris fanciers the world over, spreading to backyards of all countries where irises are grown and admired.
According to Ms. Price, "The hobby may be indulged in casually or pursued with determination. If you have the impulse to cross, give way to it," she advises, "at least once."
"The trouble - or the joy," she declares, "is that iris seeds are so easy to reproduce. Any one of them might turn out to be more beautiful, more ruffled, more 'lacy' [iris lingo], or more unusual than any other iris yet created."
Therein lies the appeal of pollen daubing or hybridizing. The surprise.
But do you need to know a chromosome from a cultivator? Not at first.
"You brush pollen from one fresh iris flower onto the three stigmas of another," White instructs. "However, it becomes a lot more complicated once you decide you want to make improvements."
He adds with a sparkle, "I've been working on an orange Japanese iris. They don't exist yet. It takes two years to see what your cross yields. And 10 years to an introduction."
Fortunately, the hybridizers he knows are generous like himself. "We have free run of each other's gardens, more or less. We visit around and take pollen from each other's flowers and run home with it."
What are hybridizers hoping to get?
Basically, you want a variety with enduring color, vigor, and perfect shape, according to White. Irises have come a long way since Victorian gardens of only deep purples. You want the branching to look like a candelabra; no weak and floppy petals.
"Some look fragile and delicate yet hold shape well in the wind and rain; others, seemingly thick and strong as leather, go to pieces in bad weather," notes Price in her book.
When all is said and done, distinctiveness is the No. 1 criterion, followed by vigor. "You want a pretty flower, but it can't be a miserable grower," as White puts it.
Despite the rigorous criteria, the number of introductions continues to increase.
The Japanese iris, White's favorite, is one of the hardiest and likes a moist soil. "They like wet feet and dry ankles," he's discovered. The Japanese iris blooms after the bearded season is over, during that lull in the garden before the annuals kick in.
The achievement in color and vigor is testimony to the persistence and skill of Japanese iris breeders over six centuries or more, this master gardener declares, shaking his head in astonishment.
That's a lot of patience. According to the Whites, it's a tradition worth continuing.
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