Iris eyes are smiling

The national iris convention starts in Hamilton today (November 7-9) and features the president of the American Iris Society as a guest speaker.

Stephanie Boot didn’t know Louisiana irises existed until she joined an iris club in Auckland – now she is a specialist grower and sells them by mail order from her Katikati nursery, Rivendell Iris Garden.

“I didn’t know a thing about the Louisianas but I saw a huge display of them in Auckland and was hooked,” says Stephanie, an international iris judge. “A lot of people still don’t know about them so I guess that is also part of the rationale behind our endeavour –  offering gardeners something that’s lovely and a bit different.”

Extra Dazzle lives up to its name. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The modern hybrids all descend from five species native to Louisiana and Florida in the United States and, although they are now grown in every climate in that country, the irises naturally grow in water or damp ground so can be dormant in summer. Read some cultural advice.

The decision to start a business based on Louisiana irises was made when Stephanie and her husband, Alistair, decided to quit Auckland for a more peaceful, rural lifestyle.

“I’d been down around Katikati with garden groups,” Stephanie says, “and always liked it and knew that growing conditions here were ideal.”

The couple moved to their 2.6ha property in 2001 which, aside from a small avocado orchard and some stands of native trees, mainly comprised lawn. The clinchers were the stream and damp ground which means massed plantings of Louisiana irises that flower through summer.

Mount Bold was bred by Peter Jackson (another one!), a New Zealander living in Australia. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Stephanie and her friend, Darlene Cook, began collecting every Louisiana variety available in New Zealand to do some hybridising of their own, but felt they needed a broader genetic base and got in touch with well-known Australian breeder Heather Pryor.

“She moved heaven and earth to help us import new stock,” Stephanie says. “Without Heather, we couldn’t have done it. The rules and regulations are numerous and the costs associated with importing plants astronomical.”

Heather, who has named a Louisiana iris for her friend (Stephanie Helene), has twice won the Mary Swords DeBaillon Medal for the best new Louisiana iris, only the third time the prize had gone outside the US in its 66-year history. Her award-winning irises were Peaches in Wine (2006) and Hot and Spicy (2004), while Sam Rix of Mount Maunganui won with Frances Elizabeth in 1965.

Stephanie thinks she has got enough new genetic material to try and create New Zealand-bred varieties although, because the plants are field grown, she has to rise early to beat the bees to the flowers.

She’s planning to concentrate on deep colours – black-reds and black-blues – because there aren’t many available. After having seen irises growing naturally under olive trees in Tuscany while judging in Florence, Stephanie has developed a garden under established olive trees that features heritage roses and old irises of all kinds, including Louisiana Iris nelsonii and L. Iris fulva, both used to produce red in hybrids.

A bee enjoys Real Treasure. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“Louisianas can have eight to 10 buds on a stem and these flower over several weeks. If you’ve got a good variety, a mass planting looks fantastic and on the edge of a pond nothing beats them.

“They do it hard in my nursery because most of them are in full sun – they prefer high, dappled shade, the sort of thing you get at the edge of a woodland.”

A member of the American Society for Louisiana Irises, Stephanie says the highlights of her judging career so far have been as part of  the triennial panel at the international iris trial grounds near Paris in 2007, and an invitation to join a judging panel in in 2010in Florence, Italy, for the International Iris Competition, an event that has been held annually since 1954.

Read more about Peter Jackson here.

This article was originally published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission.

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