Like the flowers themselves, there’s not one type of iris lover. But the common theme at Saturday’s Santa Fe Iris Society Show was passion.
“I don’t know, there’s just something,” said 89-year-old Pat Feather, a former journalist from the Texas Panhandle who was sporting a light-blue iris sweater. “Well, you get obsessed. You just get obsessed with the colors, the blooms, just the whole thing.”
For Feather — who settled in Santa Fe with her husband in the early 1960s — it started simply, many years ago, growing irises in her garden. She had no experience with competitions.
“So I had this one really great iris,” Feather said. “And I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just enter that.’ I didn’t know you were supposed to prop [the term for how the flower is displayed in a bottle]. I didn’t know you were supposed to clean, or do anything. I just stuck it in a bottle — it had a hole in it. And it still got runner-up to the Queen [of the Show]. So that hooks you. When you win something, you get hooked.”
At Saturday’s show at the De Vargas Center, there were dozens of colored and multicolored varieties — white, tan, pink, purple, blue and orange, among others — each with different styles of intricate, feathery flowers and patterns. Fragrances ranged from sharp and peppery to root beer, bubble gum and grape soda. Many of the flowers have been hybridized over the decades by enthusiastic genetic tinkerers.
Paul Hill, a former president of the society, has been cultivating iris hybrids for about 25 years. He said they can bloom more quickly than other flowers.
“I was interested in the genetics of irises,” Hill said. “Irises, actually, you can make a pollen cross, plant the seed that fall, and then, if you’re lucky, next year get a bloom.”
And the varieties may be endless.
“I think it’s pretty much the color of the rainbow these days,” Hill said. “And also what’s variable is the form.”
To create “a good flower” can take up to 20 years, Hill said.
“You have to be dedicated, disciplined and willing to take lots of failure,” he said.
Dave Curley and his wife, Anne, moved to Santa Fe a few years ago from Chicago and joined the now 51-member Santa Fe Iris Society soon after arriving.
“I think that they’re horticulturally minded,” Dave Curley said of the typical iris devotee in the society. “I think that some are very artistically minded. The biggest thing is, you meet some really nice people.”
Anne Curley had arrived with expectations the high desert would be a hard place to grow anything.
“And I looked around and I said, ‘Everybody has irises. They must work,’ ” she said. “So I thought, ‘I could learn to do that.’ ”
If Santa Fe is a great spot to grow irises, it’s also a great place to show them.
“It’s just gorgeous, all the different colors,” marveled Calvin Vanderhoof, who was visiting from Mount Shasta, Calif. Vanderhoof, who grows orchids but is new to irises, said she was amazed at the variety, and kept changing her favorites as she walked among the displays.
“Every time I think I’ve got the one, I go to the next one and it’s like some other surprise is coming out. And when you look really close, there’s a whole bunch more things happening down in there.”
Vanderhoof’s brother, Rick Bastine, waxed metaphysical when considering the unusual splashes of colors and aromas that can be present in one iris flower.
“They’re unique individuals,” said Bastine, a Santa Fe shamanic practitioner.
As colorful as the flowers are, the names of various hybrid varieties may be even better.
Hill said hybrid growers must submit their proposed names to the American Iris Society, and “they can’t be too vulgar.”
“Dracula’s Kiss,” “House Arrest,” “Cosmic Voyage,” Baboon’s Bottom” and “Streetwalker” are among those that were accepted, Hill said. “Erect” did not make the cut.
Saturday’s Queen of the Show winner, awarded for best overall shape, color and presentation, was a brown-and-yellow tall bearded iris called “Spice Trader.”
Feather, who was looking the irises over carefully and greeting old friends, said she’s retired from showing.
“I just decided this year, I’ve had enough. I just get too … nervous,” she said, laughing. “You get ‘em in the car, and invariably one falls over, knocks off this beautiful bloom that was gonna be the Queen of the Show that year.”