ONCE I saw a remarkable and lovely iris descended from one of the wld regelias and its arched flower stem vastly amused the connoisseurs of ordinary tall bearded irises, andit was just at this point that I was illuminated:
The more popular a flower becomes, and the more its culture is taken up by enthusiasts, the greater the danger that the essential beauty of the flower will be lost.
With irises, of course, the natural beauty is so great that even the most ardent specialist has not been able to make it ugly. All the same, certain aspects of beauty are soon lost sight of, once a flower is adopted by a dedicated group of amateurs.
Pansies and primroses are notorious victims of fanciers, and so were tulips, which for years sank in popularity for no other reason than that fanciers got hold of them and bred them to such narrow and specialized patterns that the intelligent gardener lost interest.
Sweet peas, roses, freesias, among others, were bred without regard to scent (their mutual glory) and the aim in all those flowers and many others besides soon became a search for greater size, newer and more dazzling colors, and more blooms per stalk.
Back to the iris, that was so beautiful and so laughed at, the original aim in breeding was to establish irises of clearer colors than the wild ones, and of better constitution--less subject to rot, and so on. These were and are commendable aims.
But along the way new flower shapes in the iris turned up (ruffled falls, for example) and these wereSee EARTHMAN, Page 2, Col. 3 Breeder Fever -- EARTHMAN, From Page 1 welcome. Unwilling to let well alone, however, the ruffling and flare of the falls were pushed further until some irises possessed a rim of "lace," which gives the effect of termites having been at work. Also the half-flaring form of the falls (flaring out from the stem instead of hanging straight down like a hound's ears) was carried further until some irises had falls parallel to the ground, with the result that they scarcely showed at all unless you looked down on them.
Breeders, in short, are rarely content to see some new improvement in a flower without also pursuing it to the point it becomes bizarre or ugly or both.
Especially when a flower becomes a "florist's flower," with a cult of fanatics (and I confess to being rather a fanatic on irises and daffodils), a new element enters: the quest for novelty.
The mere fact that a new color is seen or a new shape is shown, becomes an imagined merit in itself, quite apart from whether it is beautiful or not.
The first irises I grew were 'Purissima' and 'Ambassadeur,' and others of that period, known still to all who have any claim to knowledge about garden irises, but no longer grown in gardens because there are now so many others of the same type that are far more beautiful. I certainly am not suggesting anybody give up modern whites and return to the earlier ones. 'Purissima' was quite tender and grew in the winter, and rotted nicely, etc., etc. I and other gardeners grew it simply because no other white of 1930 could begin to approach it in beauty.
And among yellows, 'Alta California' was the answer to everybody's dreams about 1931, being the first tall, well-branched yellow iris we had ever seen. It would not be grown now, since other yellows far surpass it in beauty.
And beauty is the sticking point, surely. We grow a new variety if it is more beautiful than the old one.
But just here a slight danger becomes apparent: We become so used to seeing greater beauty in subsequent generations that we assume the newer is going to be the lovelier; and there comes a point at which this may not be true at all.
Irises are so slightly removed from the wild (wild species were still being used in breeding garden irises as recently as the 1920s and, in the case of certain other wild ones, the 1950s) that they are still unspeakably beautiful as a group.
But already the mad fever of the breeder and the searcher for novelty has led to excesses. So great an iris as the now obsolete 'South Pacific' was seriously lacking in good garden qualities: It never had more than four blooms to the stalk, for instance. This was excusable, since we had never before seen such a nearly pure blue. But later another quite defective blue, 'Music Maker' was vastly hailed (except by me) for its size and blue color and beautiful ruffling. But whereas the first iris was justifiable, as a great advance in color, the second was not an advance in color, and was not sufficiently distinctive to atone for its scant four blooms per stalk.
If a new iris is a tremendous advance in shape, or color, or branching, or some other important quality, then surely we can forgive its failings in other directions, since we do not expect anything to be flawless in all ways.
Yet all too soon the faults are taken for granted, and irises are introduced that are merely new, representing no great advance of any kind, and (what is pretty unforgivable) deficient in standard garden virtues.
If an iris is going to be just another pretty yellow, then at least it ought to have plenty of blooms per stalk (preferably eight) and the flowers ought to be held far enough from the stem that they are not scrunched up, and the blooms should open in such a succession that there is not a clotted mess of one flower opening on top of another, etc.
The fanatic all too soon finds himself (not that he seems to be aware of this terrible fault) looking only at the individual bloom, not the whole stalk and not the clump.
An unwholesome fascination with the individual bloom soon results in neglect of the stalk as a whole, and a neglect of garden beauty; and if this goes very far (as it did with pansies and tulips) then the flower is soon treasured only by its fanatics, and not by gardeners in general.
Irises, to be fair to breeders of them, are more beautiful now, as a group, than they ever were before, and no substantial damage has been done. Yet.
But I could not help noticing, a few years ago, a spectacular clump of the old yellow 'G.P. Baker,' in a Tennessee garden. This iris is long outmoded; its color is not strong, the blooms are too small in proportion to its tall stems and it has another fault or two. Yet it is not without beauty altogether, and quite apart from the fact that it was sensational in its day, it still can be a very great garden ornament.
I do not grow it and never did. That's not the point. The point is that its substantial virtues were utterly ignored--simply not seen--by the iris nuts I happened to be with. The reason they saw nothing at all in this old iris is that they were totally devoted to the individual bloom, and could no longer even recognize the beauty of the total effect. Even though, at the same time, they could overlook severe faults in some of the modern irises nearby.
It is important not to get off on some narrow pathway, with the iris or any other flower, to the extent that beauty as a garden plant is lost. In theory, for many decades now, high awards have gone only to irises that excelled as garden plants as well as individual beauty of bloom; yet every iris gardener knows that very high honors indeed have been bestowed, from time to time, on irises that were too deficient in garden quality to deserve them.
Sweet peas have been pushed so far in the direction of large ruffled flowers with a lot of them on a stem that the powerful scent of the old sorts is largely muted. This is not because successive generations of breeding automatically weaken the original scent, but because breeders paid too little attention to scent in selecting their new varieties over the generations.
In the same way, other valuable qualities are certain to be lost, in other flowers, if breeders set too little value on those qualities.
Balance is almost everything. Progress in one quality (color, form, substance) cannot wisely be allowed to charge straight ahead to some utter conclusion, if this direction in breeding means ignoring (and therefore losing) other qualities equally important in the long run.
When an iris fancier, who should know iris beauty better than the ordinary gardener (the one who is not a fanatic for irises) suddenly cannot see great beauty in a regelia hybrid merely because its flower stalk is marching to a different drummer, as you might say, then he has wrongly blinkered himself to a beauty that is quite as real as the beauty he does perceive and acknowledge.
This is a plea, then, not for being content with the flowers we already have (for all flowers now grown are susceptible of greater beauty than any we have yet seen) but for forging ahead without narrowing our sights too much.