The History of The English Iris Company

Bryan Dodsworth

Bryan Dodsworth

My father, Bryan Dodsworth, died in June 2009, he was 89. During the last ten years of his life he had continued to manage the iris garden at the Old Rectory single-handed and his enthusiasm for hybridising was undimmed. This is borne out by the detailed records that he left in his battered ‘Red Book’, with entries right up to the end of 2008.  He received his last Dykes Medal in 2001 for ‘Darley Dale’ when he was over eighty, bringing his tally to twelve, a record that is unlikely to be bettered. Bryan’s aim as a hybridiser was to create a plant that would perform just as well on the show bench as in the garden. His legacy is to leave an extraordinary Collection of Irises – he has been described as the creator of the ‘Quintessential Modern British Iris’.

Darley Dale Tall Bearded Iris

Darley Dale – Dykes Medal 2001, B.I.S.

Prior to his death my father had neither discussed the future of the garden with the family nor with Barry Emmerson whom he had mentored for nearly twenty years. At his funeral Barry kindly offered his expertise to the family at a time when we were struggling to know what we should do for the best. This was a lifeline and Barry’s enthusiasm offered real encouragement, and I resolved then and there to accept the challenge, but with hindsight was probably unaware of the level of responsibility that this entailed.

We hatched a plan! Barry was familiar with the ‘Red Book’ with its detailed hybridising log and bed plan and we both thought this was the best place to start and should be relatively straightforward, but after initial scrutiny it soon became clear that the task would be much tougher. We had not banked on Bryan’s attention to detail, his coding system influenced no doubt by the secretive nature of his wartime work. We have still not cracked this, despite several serious efforts to do so five years later. This setback drove us to log, label and map each plant in the iris garden, and introduce a simple numbering system which is still in active use today. The process took the best part of four months and involved numerous visits and proved to be pretty arduous. We experimented with different labelling systems, Dymo being the best. In May/June 2010 I started photographing individual irises and recording the photos against the plant numbers. This process continued throughout the 2011-13 flowering seasons. By the end of 2013 we had a reasonably comprehensive record, but this was far from complete due to a number of plants that refused to flower, influenced no doubt by the fact that regular splitting of rhizomes had taken a back seat as my father grappled with a pernicious outbreak of oxalis which drove him to despair and which still makes managing the garden really tricky today, not least from a distance of some 130 miles. Bryan’s final task in 2008 was to dig up approximately twenty yards of plants along the boundary wall with the church and attempt to spray the oxalis. This was a gargantuan effort, but alas was only partially successful, and after carefully reinstating the plants in 2010, I regret that the oxalis is now as bad as ever.

Plant identification was the next challenge! Here Barry’s extensive knowledge has been invaluable. We have had a reasonable degree of success with the ‘named varieties’ which are located along the church wall. The ‘pinks’ are still to be bottomed, but we feel pretty confident with the rest. Bryan left a comprehensive slide collection, with most slides named. The main problem, however, is with the colours, and there is predictable difficulty with the ‘blues’ and ‘purples’ where the slide images are unreliable. We managed one day in the Bridgford garden in 2014 looking at the named varieties. Barry drove from Suffolk and I met him there from Norfolk, we had grouped the slides into colours, and then with Bryan’s ancient handheld slide magnifier compared these with individual blooms gathered from the garden. We had some positive ID, and some where further work is required, but the exercise proved to be a success, despite the fact that it rained all day, and we were working from Bryan’s leaky greenhouse.

Irises at Bridgford

The Greenhouse at Bridgford

The seedlings however present a different challenge altogether as we tackle at least six beds grown between 2003-2008. The ‘Red Book’ should have given us a head start, but difficulty in deciphering the planting layout and bed plans has made it hard to pinpoint individual plants, and this gets more tricky as time moves on. However my father’s slide records during the last ten years are good and we remain confident of further success. Over the last couple of years I have started to move a number of seedlings to my garden in Norfolk, which will allow them to be evaluated properly, and the best retained. This is very much work in progress and more work is required next year or two to complete the task.

Barry continues to use Bryan’s breeding lines in his own hybridisation programme. His recent success with ‘Iceni Sunset’ which was awarded the Dykes Medal in 2014 is a great accolade. I started hybridising in 2012 and will see the first results in 2015; I also produced a number of crosses in 2013 and 2014 and believe that some of these could be interesting. Bryan’s records of crosses made each year, and his scoring system of the results, are still available and provide a clear insight into what he was trying to achieve during the last ten years of his life when he went largely below the radar in the iris world. What is clear is that it was during this period that he made some of his best crosses and most are entirely unknown to the iris world let alone  the general public. I am mindful that my father will be watching my own results, with a critical eye; in turn I will endeavour to adopt the same rigour and ruthlessness that resulted in his naming less than fifty varieties in as many years from over 100,000 seedlings. I am in no doubt that the majority of my own efforts will end up on the compost heap, as he would expect, but I do have some confidence that with excellent breeding lines to choose from, and aided by Bryan’s current record of crosses made, it should be possible to produce something reasonably respectable before too long.

Looking to the future, there are three priorities. The first is to ensure that there is a comprehensive collection of all the extant named varieties in my Norfolk garden; the plan is that these will form the basis of a new National Collection of Bryan Dodsworth’s Irises; I have been in contact with Plant Heritage, and this is subject to their approval. This is an Autumn project.  The second is to raise the profile of my father’s irises in the context of promoting and championing the British Iris  at a time when interest is at a very low ebb, and the number of British hybridisers of Tall Bearded Irises can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand. Barry and I set up The English Iris Company in 2013 to do this  and have just started to make some of the best varieties available to the public, some for the very first time.

Finally, I am keen to take up my father’s baton and highlight within the horticultural press the importance of form and structure in Tall Bearded Irises at a time when the commercial growers are focused almost exclusively on new colours and flower shapes, irrespective of the structure of the plant on which the flowers are carried. This means, I believe, that many modern introductions are substandard, and of poor quality, with flowers that fail to open properly, and with some that are unsuited to UK growing conditions. Then, there is the question of colour….. I will not exhaust your patience further and save this topic for a further article.

Bryan Dodsworth’s irises are alive and well. I remain indebted to Barry Emmerson for his guidance and support and whose encouragement has made this possible.

– Simon Dodsworth