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Hybridizing your own iris.

Hybridizing your own iris

Ardi Kary of Scottsdale, Arizona, shares her techniques and excitement

The satisfaction of creating a flower different from any other in the world is what keeps Ardi Kary of Scottsdale hybridizing bearded irises. "Even though the majority of the offspring are tossed away, there are always a few that hold promise for future introductions," Mrs. Kary explains. "That makes it exciting." Iris breeding has long been a hobby for Mrs. Kary's family. Her father bred bicolors (flowers with two distinct colors) and worked on developing better reds; he introduced several irises in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, including `Le Sedna' (a red) and the ever-popular `Gala Madrid' (butter-scotch and crimson). Now Mrs. Kary and her husband, son, and daughter are continuing the tradition. Their latest introduction (1989) was `Dusty Skies', an unusual blue and gray bicolor. Many new iris introductions are, in fact, made by amateur hybridizers; professionals tend to focus their efforts on more profitable flowers such as annuals and roses. Irises are easy to hybridize; any gardener who's interested (and has the patience to wait two years to see the results) can do it. First of all, you need to set goals. Choose one or several of the characteristics mentioned at right, then follow our instructions to create a unique flower. Iris societies sponsor shows you can attend to see good examples of the flowers; check this month's garden events listing. In addition, you might plan to visit a specialized iris garden when plants are in bloom (March to May, depending on the climate); many public gardens have good collections.

What do breeders look for?

New colors, new combinations of colors, ruffles or lace on petal edges, and irises that rebloom (produce flowers more than once a year) are some of the characteristics hybridizers look for. A well-formed flower should have thick, substantial petals--not floppy, thin ones like some of the old-fashioned types. (Mrs. Kary finds that good flowers hold up for three days in her garden.) Flowers should also have good shape and form: wide petals, and standards (upright petals) and falls (lower petals) that are in proportion to each other. Bloom size should be in proportion to the stalk; you don't want to develop a large bloom on a short, weak stalk or vice versa. Colors should be clear and distinct, not muddy. Finally, breeders look for flower stalks that are branched, with buds spread out along the upper stalk, not clumped together. For longest bloom, the buds should open successively, rather than all in one day.

How to create your own iris hybrids

Each flower has three sets of standards, falls, crests (small, upright, ridged structures at the base of each fall), stamens with pollen-bearing anthers that sit under the crest, and stigmas (lip-like structures on the lower side of the crest), where the pollen is deposited. Within the seed pod, the seeds develop in three separate sections. Normally, a flower is pollinated by a bee or other insect that rubs against the pollen and deposits it on the stigma. To develop new irises, the hybridizer performs the insect's task. Here's how to proceed.

Choose high-quality parents with characteristics you want in the offspring. To create the best offspring, use only the highest-quality parents. If you want to create a ruffled iris, select two ruffled parents. You can cross a ruffled parent with a plain one, but the proportion of ruffled offspring will be lower. Keep in mind that the offspring can inherit characteristics from the parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents.

Always use fresh flowers. To ensure a successful cross, select flowers that have just opened. In warm weather, Mrs. Kary pollinates flowers early in the day, (about 7 A.M.), so they are cool and fresh.

Collect and transfer the pollen. The pollen should be fluffy, not dry or sticky. Use a small, good-quality camel-hair brush and rub it across an anther of the pollen (male) parent. Transfer the pollen to the seed (female) parent by touching the brush to her stigmas. If you like, you can use tweezers instead of a brush: pull out the anther from the pollen parent and touch it directly to each stigma of the seed parent. To help expose a stigma, grasp the crest with the thumb and forefinger and pull it back slightly. Repeat the process on all three stigmas in the flower. Before moving on to new flowers, sterilize the brush in alcohol. To guarantee success, make several crosses using the same varieties. If your cross is successful, the seed parent's ovary will start enlarging in a week or two; if not, it will turn brown and shrivel.

Tag the pollinated bloom. Using a permanent marking pen, make a tag listing the seed parent first, followed by an "X", and then the pollen parent (as in: `Autograph' X `Ever After'). Tie it around the stem with a string, just below the newly pollinated flower.

Harvest seeds and sow them

It takes two to three months for seeds to mature. Harvest them when the pod turns from green to brown and begins to split open, but before seeds spill out. Each pod produces from 2 to 50 or more seeds; each seed produces a different flower. Remove the tag, place the seeds and tag in an envelope or small box (not an airtight container), and store in a cool, dry area. Plant seeds in the ground or in pots (use potting soil) in early to mid-fall, depending on your climate; seeds will germinate in spring. Set them 3/4 inch deep and 1 inch apart. Keep soil moist but not wet. Tag each container. When plants are 3 to 4 inches tall, transplant them to a permanent location with full sun; set them 6 inches apart. During the first growing season, water regularly and apply a half-strength dilution of fertilizer in spring and fall. Fertilize again in late winter before bloom (fall and late winter are the normal times to fertilize established iris). Most plants bloom the second spring (if not, they should bloom by the third year).

Picking the winners

"This is when the excitement begins," says Mrs. Kary. "I go out in the garden every day and discover my new iris creations." She selects and saves the crosses that look interesting and pulls the duds. If a flower looks good but still needs work, Mrs. Kary continues to cross it with varieties possessing promising characteristics. If a new flower's characteristics are better than any other similar variety she's aware of, she names the flower and registers it with the American Iris Society. Then she continues to grow and propagate the plant (by the rhizomes it produces). If a new flower is outstanding, the amateur hybridizer may find a commercial grower who is willing to introduce it to the market on his or her behalf. If the plant grows quickly, it may take only two more years before there is an adequate supply for the market. With a slow-growing plant, developing an adequate supply could take 10 years, though the plant could be introduced as "rare" before the time.

PHOTO : A multitude of tall bearded iris flowers lift ruffly, colorful faces to the sun in amateur

PHOTO : hybridizer's desert garden

PHOTO : Using a small brush, gather pollen from an anther under one of the three crests on the

PHOTO : flower you decide to use as the pollen (male) parent

PHOTO : Transfer pollen to flower you decide to use as seed (female) parent by touching brush to

PHOTO : lips of all three stigmas (on lower sides of crests)

PHOTO : Tag seed pod to identify both male and female parents. This one has several weeks to go

PHOTO : before seeds mature; it will turn brown, then split open
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Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Apr 1, 1990
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