This is the story of Canadian
hybrids being grown commercially in Holland...
Reticulata Iris start to bloom
right as the snow is disappearing.
Typically that's the last week in March here in Toronto. They last for 3 to 4 weeks and are followed
by Juno Iris. It's always a joy to see
them appear after a long winter. For me
it's particularly exciting to see what new colours or patterns appear for the
first time. The Retics you may be
familiar with are either blue or purple.
The main exception is the bright yellow species Iris danfordiae that is said to "shatter"
into tiny bulblets after about 3 or 4 years.
I have been hybridizing these
treasures for over 25 years. I started
off working with named varieties, but soon realized this was a very limited
gene pool. I would need plants from the
wild with different characteristics if I were to create something
interesting. In 1985 and 1986 I went
plant collecting in Turkey, traveling 9,000 km over two weeks each time. One of the things I wanted to find was a
diploid form of Iris danfordiae (the
commercial form is a triploid). With the
help of a local, and some persistence, I was very lucky to succeed near the end
of the first trip. Of particular note
was another Reticulata that I collected from near Çat. It too had bulbs that "shatter."
In 1987 I was fortunate to be
given bulbs of Iris sophenensis by
the late Frank Kalich. At that time it
was known as Iris histrioides var. sophenensis. It also has bulbs that "shatter." I made numerous crosses with danfordiae. Many were unsuccessful. Of the seeds that were produced, most didn't
germinate. The big break came in 1989
when it happened that I made three crosses between danfordiae and sophenesis. Sixteen bloomed for the first time in 1994
(yes, it takes 5 years to go from a seed to a flowering bulb). They were "just blues," but I knew the
crosses were true because their standards had been turned into hairs only 1 to
3mm in width. This was simply the result
of normal standards, 7 to 10mm in width, being crossed with danfordiae's standard, which is actually
just a bristle.
A lesser indicator that the cross
was true was the fact a couple of the clones had a touch of yellow in
them. However this was a negative,
because it made them look muddy.
<![if !vml]><![endif]>At the time it was expected these hybrids
would be sterile. Like crossing a horse
with a donkey and getting a mule. The
cross works but that's it, dead end; you can't go any further. I thought I simply had to make some crosses
even if I would knowingly be wasting my time.
I told myself that if anything would work, it would be if I intercrossed
the 16 clones. So that's what I did.
5 years later the first of these bloomed.
To my utter amazement it was white with a touch of blue and yellow. I nick named it 'Starlight.' This fits perfectly because its bud is a very
pale yellow, which changes to creamy white when the flower opens.
I later discovered that what had
happened was, the blue got turned off, and the yellow got turned off, leaving
white. This then allowed an underlying
pattern with a bit of blue and a touch of yellow to be displayed.
It turns out that danfordiae, sophenensis, and the Çat Retic are all 2n=18. Hence crosses between them are fertile. All other Reticulatas are either 2n=16, or
Back in 1997 Wim de Goede and his
wife Hanny stopped off in Toronto on their way to California to look for
Calachortus species. They were able to
see some of my hybrids in bloom. It was
Wim who first spoke of my F1 sophenensis
x danfordae clones as "just
blues." I understood what he meant --
there are already lots of blues available commercially. He was however interested in testing a number
of my other hybrids, so we drew up a test agreement, and I sent him several of
the hybrids that he had shown interest in.
<![if !vml]><![endif]><![if !vml]><![endif]>It is now eleven years later, and Wim is
building up stock of four of those first clones. He is also interested in a couple of others,
and is of course testing a few of the most recent varieties. This year I was able to visit him for the
first time, and I took in the Lentetuin flower show in Breezand at the
beginning of March. Wim's display at the
show included three of my hybrids. 'White
Caucasus,' which is actually a rare white form of a normally purple Reticulata
from the Armenian Caucasus Mountains, was awarded "Beste Bijzonder Bolgewas
Klein Formaat" (Best Small Special Bulb).
Sales should start in two or
three years. Initially ten or fifteen
thousand will be sold. There is a really
possibility this will grow to one million bulbs per year; maybe even six
million. These large numbers are
possible because there are no other whites available, plus 'White Caucasus is a
very good white. William van Eeden's
'Natascha' is said to be white, but it's actually a very pale blue.
My other hybrids won't sell in
nearly as large a quantity, but I'd certainly be happy having twenty five
thousand of this and a hundred thousand of that being sold. I'm not expecting to earn a lot of money from
them; hopefully just enough to offset expenses.
The real reward will be knowing others are enjoying my creations. My interest is in developing the new colours
and patterns. I'm happy to let the Dutch, with their ideal growing conditions
and excellent distribution system, market them; and to do so in much large
numbers than I ever could
Reading this you may think it's
been relatively easy to commercialize my hybrids. Actually it's been quite an up hill battle.
<![if !vml]><![endif]>Over the years I've had three other growers
also testing my hybrids. Two of them
have dropped out, and I'm not sure how serious the third one really is. Wim has rejected a couple of clones that I
considered quite good and would have liked to have seen introduced on a medium
scale. All is not lost. Janis Ruksans will introduce them on a much
smaller scale. He lives in Latvia and is
well known for specialty bulbs that you can't get anywhere else.
<![if !vml]><![endif]><![if !vml]><![endif]>Two of
these are: 94-AT-2, a lovely brown, and 'Sea Green' (97-CQ-1) which is a
strange, but nice greeny-blue, that changes to blue just as the flowers are
finishing. Granted 94-AT-2's brown is
not a showy colour, but there has never been a brown before, and this one is
I had hoped sales of my hybrids
would have started by now and that they would then spark interest in some of my
other hybrids. Reality is, it takes more
than a dozen years to multiply a couple of bulbs into one hundred
thousand. Even then, there are just
enough to start sales at a small level, and begin to develop interest in the
variety. So even more time is then
needed to build up sales.
<![if !vml]><![endif]><![if !vml]><![endif]>I
have also had a number of my Juno Iris hybrids tested by Dutch Bulb
Growers. Unfortunately in the end it has
turned out they really weren't that interested.
In part this is because they feel there isn't much of a market for them.
was a treat seeing my hybrids in the field in Holland (only a small percentage
were in bloom while I was there). The
only drawback was the very strong cold winds that blow at that time of the
year. They made taking close-up photos
difficult. I can imagine that it would
often be impossible to hybridize: the pollen would blow away before it could be
applied, plus your hands would become lethargic. If I lived in Holland I'd definitely put up
windbreaks, as well as cover the flowers to keep the rain off.
<![if !vml]><![endif]><![if !vml]><![endif]>Another
treat was Wim taking me to see other nursery operations, including a
development centre where tulip breeding is done for the cut flower trade. The characteristics of a good cut flower
variety are quite different from those of garden Tulips. For example, long stems are needed, as well
as buds that colour-up early, so customers can see what they are buying.
<![if !vml]><![endif]>In my
case Wim would prefer it if my hybrids were larger. Reality is they tend to be small. This is because both danfordiae and the Çat species are small (35 mm fall blade
tip-to-tip). Sophenensis is a more typical at 50 mm tip-to-tip. A large Reticulata would be over 80 mm
tip-to-tip. Also, Wim feels Reticulata
Iris should have standards. More normal
standards do show up in some F2 clones, but it's luck of the draw. The tendency is the standards are further
reduced and only 15 mm in length (verses a normal 30 mm), in addition to being
The thing that I'm trying to do
currently, is shake up the genes as much as possible so that "hidden"
expressions come out. In the first
number of years I could categorize my hybrids into: whites; blues; yellows;
yellow-blues (which includes greens, browns, and of course yellows with
stripes, and yellow with spots); and light spotted blue-green. The later is a pattern that occasionally
shows up in a back cross to danfordiae.
<![if !vml]><![endif]>After a
few years it seemed like all I was getting was largely more of the same. A break came when I started to involve the
Çat species. One of the things that
showed up was a start towards orange.
98-EO-2 is about half way between orange-orange and lemon-yellow.
Another example of what I'm
trying to achieve is 01-FS-2, which bloomed for the first time last year. So-to-speak it just popped out of
nowhere. I'll need to study it's
breeding carefully, and see what it tells me about the types of crosses I
should try to be making in 2009.
Do you notice that its standards
For more information visit www.Reticulatas.com