“Harriet Tubman”, an iris scheduled for introduction next year by local hybridizer Pat McNeal, exhibits characteristics from the blue violet grandparents of the Pod Parent, “Cuss A Blue Streak,” and the Pollen Parent, “Home Fires Burning. (Photo by Pat McNeal)

Do you ever wonder what’s involved in creating the fascinating new cultivars (varieties) of your favorite plants?
Whether it be flowers or vegetables, new varieties are created by cross-pollenating two different varieties.
There are two basic ways of creating new varieties of plants — man-made and nature-made.
Nature makes new varieties when insects, such as bees, visit a variety of plants, carrying the pollen from one plant to another.
Man creates new cultivars by taking the pollen from one variety and deliberately introducing it to another. The seeds are then grown to develop the new variety.
In 2007, after having grown about a dozen different irises for about 30 years, I acquired about 70 new iris cultivars after accidentally coming across a beautiful new iris on the Internet. I didn’t realize how much irises had been improved over those years and I wanted more!
I became interested in hybridizing irises in 2008 after joining the American Iris Society and seeing the top irises that had been hybridized, for which awards were given each year.
I thought it would be fun to create new varieties and began cross-pollinating some of my new varieties that were blooming.
That year, I didn’t give much thought to anything other than which two cultivars might produce a pretty new flower.
Since then, I’ve learned that a good hybridizer puts a lot more thought into the process, selecting for things such as disease resistance, growth habits, length of bloom time, fragrance, foliage, stalk form and strength, height, etc.
Some of those first crosses turned out quite nice in spite of my ignorance.
One of them, a brown iris named “Harriet Tubman,” is planned for introduction next year.
It turns out that we live within a half-mile of the plantation where her father worked, and she likely walked past, or even on, our property many times as she led slaves to freedom.
Irises only come “true to variety” when the rootstock is divided; every seed produces a different, new iris.
However, just like people, some “kids” will look a lot like Mom, some will look a lot like Dad, some will look like a combination of the two and some may look like, or carry traits of, a great, great grandparent several generations back.
In selecting parents for cross-pollinating, a hybridizer can imagine what some of the kids might look like, but there are almost always surprises, too.
An iris cultivar is considered “introduced” when it is offered for sale and proof is sent to the AIS.
But the process one goes through to produce an iris for introduction is a long and arduous one.
First, one chooses the potential parents and takes the pollen from one plant (the “pollen parent”) and introduces it to the “pod parent.”
The parentage and other data on the cross are recorded on a tag affixed to the flower.
Hopefully the cross will “take” and a pod will begin to form, though many times, the attempt fails.
Once a pod forms, it is watched carefully as it matures in six to eight weeks to make sure the seeds don’t fall out of the pod onto the ground.
The seeds are harvested and dried, then planted in the hybridizer’s preferred method, of which there are many.
The simplest method is to plant them outside in November, as the seeds need a chilling period before they will germinate.
When planted outside in November, many of the seeds will germinate the following spring, but some will wait another one to three years to germinate; this is thought to be a survival tactic in case of a crop failure in any given year.
The seeds of tall bearded irises will grow for two years before one can generally expect to see a bloom.
Thus a cross made in 2020 will likely not produce a bloom until 2023 or even later.
But, oh, the thrill of seeing a brand-new iris bloom and realizing that you are the only person in the world who has ever seen that iris is tremendous.
Sometimes the sight of a new flower will take your breath away!
Getting a “seedling” or unintroduced iris to bloom stage is just the beginning of years of hard work.
Remember, an iris only comes true from dividing the rootstock or rhizomes.
That one plant must be multiplied many times to get enough stock to introduce the new cultivar — usually 200-300 plants — and that takes years.
It is often thought that you need to grow 100 seedlings to get one that is worthy of introduction, but I feel that number can be reduced by careful selection of the breeding stock. Still, there will be many varieties grown that won’t make the cut.
The many seedlings from a cross should be grown and evaluated for at least three years before deciding whether or not they should be introduced.
So now we are at five to six years from the time the cross was made!
During that time, the dozens of seedlings had to be weeded, fertilized, divided and notes taken before making a decision about which, if any, would be introduced.
Then those that make the cut probably need to be multiplied further before introduction, meaning several more years of hard work.
Tall bearded irises generally cost $55-$60 per plant when they are first introduced.
Intermediate and dwarf irises are less expensive.
This reflects the rather limited supply and the increased demand for the new irises, as well as the years of work involved. (Daylilies, by comparison, are often $100 or more for new introductions.)
As years go by and supply increases, the price usually drops, making them more affordable for gardeners.
So if you can be patient, you can have a collection of beautiful, recently-introduced hybrids to beautify your gardens.
And now when you see the price of a new iris, you no longer need to wonder why it is so much more expensive than the ones at the local stores.
(Editor’s note: Pat McNeal started the Bayshore Iris Society, an affiliate of the American Iris Society, in 2013 to serve members of the AIS on the Eastern Shore. Anyone is welcome to join Bayshore Iris Society to learn more about irises or hybridizing. Contact McNeal at 443-786-3668 or at thegoodlife4all@verizon.net, or Chris Eareckson at 410-476-3971 or creareckson@atlanticbb.net for more information.)