This is the story of how we saved a Collection of British Bearded Irises and made them available to the Public for sale.
My father died in June 2009, he was 89. During the last ten years of his life he continued to manage the iris garden at the Old Rectory, single-handed. His enthusiasm for hybridising was undimmed and his battered ‘Red Book’, with last entries from 2008 is an enduring record. 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. My father’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 an extraordinary collection of Award Winning British Bearded Irises, further Named Varieties, and a considerable number of unnamed seedlings. My father is described in iris circles as the creator of the ‘Quintessential Modern British Iris’.
My father had not 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 at a time when we were struggling to know what to do for the best. This was a lifeline and Barry’s enthusiasm offered real encouragement. Saving a collection of British Bearded Irises of national importance was not uppermost in our minds, and we were definitely unaware of the level of responsibility that this would entail.
Fortunately, Barry was familiar with the ‘Red Book’ with its detailed hybridising log and bed plan. We decided this was a good place to start, although it soon became clear that the task would be much tougher than we realised. We had not banked on Bryan’s attention to detail, his complex coding system influenced no doubt by the secretive nature of his wartime work.
We started to log, label and map each plant in the iris garden; next, we introduced a simple numbering system which is still in active use today. The process took the best part of four months, involved several visits and proved pretty arduous. We also experimented with different labelling systems. In May/June 2010 I started photographing individual irises and recording the photos against the plant numbers. This process continued for over four years.
Plant identification was the next challenge and here Barry’s extensive knowledge has proved invaluable. We have success with ‘named varieties’ that are located along the church wall. The ‘pinks’ are still to be bottomed, but we feel pretty confident with the rest. My father has left a comprehensive slide collection, with most slides named. We have a problem with some of the colours, and predictable difficulty with the ‘blues’ and ‘purples’; here 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 came from Norfolk. The slides were grouped into colours, and then using my father’s ancient handheld slide magnifier, compared these with individual blooms gathered from the garden. The exercise was largely successful, but further work is required; needless to say it rained all day, and we were working from Bryan’s leaky greenhouse.
The seedlings present a different challenge altogether, with six beds grown between 2003-2008. The ‘Red Book’ should have given us a head start. However, difficulty in deciphering the planting layout and bed plans has made it hard to pinpoint individual plants. This gets more tricky as time moves on, but we have my father’s slide records and we remain confident of further success. Over the next three years I moved the Iris Collection from the Nottinghamshire garden to my home in Norfolk. This provides opportunities for further evaluation of unregistered seedlings, and the process is ongoing.
Barry continues to use my father’s irises in his breeding lines. His recent success with ‘Iceni Sunset’ (UK Dykes Medal 2014) is a great accolade. I started hybridising in 2012 and saw the first results in 2015; this continues and some of my own efforts show promise, but these are early days.
My father’s records of crosses made each year, and his scoring system of the results, are still available. They provide a clear insight into what he was trying to achieve during the last ten years of his life. Some of the seedlings from this period are really good, and most are entirely unknown to the iris world. I know my father is watching my own results, with a critical eye. My plan to approach my own hybridising with the same rigour and ruthlessness that produced less than fifty registered varieties in as many years from over 60,000 seedlings.
I have no doubt that the majority of my seedlings will end up on the compost heap, as he would expect. But, I remain confident that with excellent plant material to choose from, and helped by my father’s record of crosses made, it should be possible to produce something respectable before too long.
We are confident that we have been able to save an important collection of British Bearded Irises of national importance, but we now need to secure my father’s amazing legacy
Looking to the future, there are three priorities. The first, is to ensure there is a comprehensive collection of all the extant named varieties in my Norfolk garden; these form the basis of a new National Collection of Bryan Dodsworth’s Irises. This was approved by plant Heritage in 2015.
The second, is to raise the profile of my father’s irises. We continue to promote and champion the British Iris at a time when interest is at a low ebb, and the number of British hybridisers of Tall Bearded Irises can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The English Iris Company was set up in 2013 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 the importance of form and structure in Tall Bearded Irises. Commercial growers, largely from the States or southern France are focused almost exclusively on new colours and flower shapes, largely ignoring the form and structure of the plant. This results in many modern introductions being of poor quality, with flowers that fail to open properly, and some varieties that are unsuited to UK growing conditions.
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.