preserving historic iris

My love of flowers began at an early age. My mother enjoys telling the story of the time, when I was around three, that she noticed me in the backseat of the car looking sad. She asked me what was wrong, to which I replied “I don’t feel loved.” “Well, honey,” she said, “what would make you feel loved?” “A blooming plant would be nice,” I said.

All through my childhood, the iris held pride of place in my floral pantheon. At that time I only knew the flowers in florists’ shops. So, the iris of my youth was the plain blue flag iris. At the time I had no awareness of the iris’ incredible range of form and color, nor that such voluptuous blooms come from a rhizome that looks like a dried up lobster. Still, even then I knew that the iris had more grace than the lily and more elegance than the rose.



It has been one of the great pleasures of my role as monastery groundskeeper to explore the huge range of iris one can grow. As I have done so, I have learned that my own particular taste–not surprising given the rest of my proclivities–favors the historic iris. The older cultivars tend to be simpler in form, closer to their wild cousins. As such, they possess infinitely more grace than their overly large and overly frilly modern relatives. They also fit better into the context of a monastery garden, where the focus is less on spectacular single blooms than on creating a harmonious environment conducive to rest and contemplation.

I’m thrilled, therefore, that we are partnering with the Historic Iris Preservation Society to help preserve rare and historic iris. We are now one of a growing number of guardian gardens, a network of home gardeners and some larger ventures that dedicate garden space to preserving the most endangered iris cultivars.

The program runs on a brilliant and simple model. Each participating garden hosts as many rare cultivars as it can. Once those iris have grown large enough to divide, the gardener divides them, keeps four or five rhizomes for her garden, and sends the others to another guardian gardener, who adopts the divided iris. The only money that changes hands is the cost of postage.

Guardian Gardens maintains a database of all the iris grown by HIPS members as well as those we know are sold commercially. If there are fewer than four HIPS members growing a certain iris, it’s considered worthy of inclusion on the Guardian Gardens ark.


Our newly planted historic iris.


The Holy Cross gardens have only recently joined this program, but we’ve already adopted 13 rare iris. It’s really a perfect situation for us. As many of you know, we’re in a several year process of renovating our garden spaces. This renovation includes two large iris beds, one on the guesthouse lawn and one on the north side of the monastic enclosure. The Guardian Gardens program gives us the opportunity to fill those beds with beautiful iris that aren’t available commercially at the same time that we help the cause of heirloom and historic plants.

My understanding and appreciation of the iris continues to grow each year, but I remain grounded in that childlike fascination with the beauty of flowers. It’s incredible that such beauty exists in the world, and incredible that I can participate in its growth and preservation. My hunch as a child turns out to be right–blooming plants do convey to me the love of the Creator, and they help me channel that love in and through my own life as a gardener, a monk, and a Christian.


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3 Replies to “preserving historic iris”

  1. Great blog Will. My tastes in irises run far and wide and I intend to explore every facet of irises there is but it gives me great joy to help to preserve irises from the past for the future. My mom enjoyed her irises so much and she passed on to me her love of them. My irises are dedicated to her, specially the historics.


  2. What a beautiful, well written tribute to the lovely IRIS! Irises never cease to amaze me in their beauty, simplicity (historic), types, sizes, colors, with a display in spring which one can enjoy with a lovely cup of tea – sitting in the garden. Thank you for sharing this article. HIPS Member, new Guardian Garden participant (and happy to do so.)


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