Louisiana Iris – Bayou Beauty

Summary: The Louisiana Iris known as the Bayou Beauty hails from the swamps of southern Louisiana, below is some history of its discovery and memories of this southern iris

Deep in the swamps of south Louisiana grows a horticultural treasure that has all the brilliance of precious jewels. Whence this fabulous Louisiana iris came, or when, no one knows.

It was in the late 1920s that Dr. John K. Small of The New York Botanical Garden, brought these swamp beauties to the attention of the horticultural world, proclaiming them the most important botanical discovery of the generation. Click here to learn of Louisiana Iris garden care

In the spring of 1925, after completing a collecting trip in Florida, Dr. Small crossed the iris area of Louisiana on his way to the Pacific coast. The bayou banks, marsh lands and roadside ditches were bedecked in splendor. At that time, iris grew in magnificent colonies in and around the outskirts of New Orleans. But alas, the improvements and expansion of the great city and the drainage of lowlands and swamp areas over vast regions of the state are rapidly destroying this incomparable natural phenomenon. So rapid was the destruction, that only a memory now remains of many pictorial stands of Louisiana iris once known.

louisiana iris gulf shores

Near Abbeville, Louisiana, in an isolated area of swampland, grew the so-called giant Abbeville fulvas. Although many concede these are a distinct type, it has not received specific rank botanically. Credit for bringing this iris area to the attention of collectors, belongs to W. B. MacMillan of Abbeville, Louisiana.

My uncle remembers the early morning when he stood on the rim of this swamp, entranced with the picture before me. From water of inklike blackness, rose towering, ageless, cypress trees with branches draped in gossamer gray moss. The water round about was pierced with smooth cypress knees of various shapes and heights. Colonies of brilliant-colored iris, on stems 3 to 5 feet tall, sparkled above lush green swordlike foliage. They grew so close, care was required in walking among them.

The large flowers were in shades of wine, red, brown, amber, peach and occasionally old gold and butterscotch tones—the so-called Abbeville yellows. There were flowers of velvety and of smooth texture, flowers of flat form, others with flaring and hanging segments, flowers with sepals showing signal marking in variation and others with no marking. All had the quill-like style-arm typical of Iris fulva.

he shared another memory of a short journey so close to the gulf that the smell of the sea was in the air. A sharp turn in the road brought a gasp of delight over a picture never to be forgotten—blue iris, by the thousands, growing shoulder high, on each side of a white shell road, as far as the eye could see, with fleecy white clouds sailing on a blue sky above. Walking among the iris, looking into the faces of thousands, finding them all beautiful but with slight variation in color. form, signal marking or height, I felt they must be Iris giganticaerulea in its purest form. In gardens where mild weather prevails throughout the winter, Louisiana iris can be grown as a true bog plant or in rich, humus-filled flower borders.

But what cultural methods must we employ to induce these beautiful swamp iris from the deep south to be happy in dry-land gardens far from their native home? How much cold will they tolerate, not only to live, but to flower profusely year after year? What degree of protection, if any, will be required? Ah, those are indeed, 64-dollar questions.

Although this iris has, undoubtedly, grown there for hundreds of years, it is comparatively new to us as a garden plant. Much of the little that has been written is of a controversial nature. Northern gardeners must be inspired and encouraged to learn by trial and error how to adapt this lovely flowering plant to the existing conditions of their gardens.

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