An Iris with history

When my in-laws moved to Illinois from Michigan, they dug up some of the plants from their landscape to bring some of their garden with them. When my mother-in-law asked me if I wanted a division of an iris that had been in their family for nearly 60 years, I jumped at the opportunity. She told me that this iris had been growing on the farmstead her family purchased in the late 1940s, and had been transplanted to different family homes over the years.

I planted the division at the base of an American Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) that grows along my driveway. It bloomed the first spring (2003) and has quickly spread to surround the tree’s trunk. The Iris is one of the most floriferous in my garden, and I’ve always wondered if it was a named cultivar.

Last week, I contacted Kelly Norris from Rainbow Iris Farms to see if he could identify the cultivar. He quickly responded that it looked like Iris x sambucina, which he described as an “old historic variety.” With some additional research on my part, I found that ‘Sambucina’ was originally classified by Linnaeus in 1759. It is thought to be a cross between Iris variegata and Iris pallida.

While I know that identification from a single photo can be problematic, and my Iris is possibly not ‘Sambucina’, I’m excited by the thought that I’m growing a plant that’s almost a genetic twin of a plant observed by the father of botanical classification.

With this connection to horticultural history in my mind, this last weekend I made my first visit to the Chicago Botanic Garden. When I walked around the Heritage Garden and came upon this sculpture depicting the young Linneaus, it struck me how connected all of us are through the genetic lineage of the plants that have been passed down through the generations.

I knew the clump of Iris that grows along my driveway had history, but until this week, I didn’t realize just how much.