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The Life of a Canadian Iris

June 12, 2023

The Life of a Canadian Iris: The Story of Forensic Curation, Detection and Discovery.

By Alex Henderson, Curator of Living Collections, Royal Botanical Gardens

One of the great perks of being a curator at a botanical garden is the gift of discovery. This can be serendipitous or more often because of concentrated, forensic style detection revealing deep and meaningful data. The information gathered through the curatorial process provides a more intimate and enlightened lens though which to view the Living Collections. As Jimmy Neil Smith said of our species, “We are all storytellers. We all live in a network of stories. There isn’t a stronger connection between people than storytelling.” Each individual plant in RBG’s Living Collections has a story as unique as a fingerprint. The careful and forensic curation of these plants unlocks charismatic stories that inspire and ignite curiosity. One of these examples is the iris cultivar ‘W.J. Moffat’, the hybridizer William Miles and RBG’s longest serving Director, Dr. Lesley Laking.

William Miles (1892-1958) was born in England and trained at the Royal Horticultural Society Garden, Wisley. During this period, he worked with William Rickatson Dykes (1877-1925), an authority on irises and after whom the Dykes Memorial Medal was founded in his honour in England, America, and France. In 1912 Mr. Miles emigrated to Canada, raising iris at Surreyhurst Farm near Ingersoll, Ontario, introducing miniature dwarf bearded iris and several tall bearded iris. The Bulletin of the American Iris Society No. 110 (July 1948): 50.] noted that “Ontario is particularly fortunate in having Mr. William Miles, now of Ingersoll, Ontario.” In 1952 he was the recipient of the Foster Memorial Plaque, (instituted in 1926 by the British Iris Society) reserved for special personal awards to those contributing to the advance of the genus Iris.

In 1946 Mr. Miles registered a tall bearded iris cultivar ‘W.J. Moffat’, described as having standards and falls with white ground red/pink stitch and a golden beard. The W.J. Moffat (dates unknown) which this iris honors was a Hamiltonian mathematics teacher at Central Collegiate Institute and a well know Ontarian collector of iris.

iris with standards and falls with white ground red/pink stitch and a golden beard
Iris 'W.J. Moffat'

In 1945, Mr. Moffat, being an avid iris collector, a supporter of RBG, and being in the local area, donated an extensive collection of his iris cultivars which formed the basis of RBG’s iris collection in Laking Garden. As a director of the American Iris Society, he also had extensive connections with American iris hybridizers further supporting the development of the collection. In 1953 he introduced his own iris cultivar ‘Laurentian Lady’ described as having pale standards and falls with a beard fringed with yellow.

iris with pale standards and falls with a beard fringed with yellow.
Iris 'Laurentian Lady'

Dr. Lesley Laking (1916-2011) remains to this date RBG’s longest serving director, being in post from 1954 to 1981. It was during his tenure that Laking Garden (then known as the Spring Garden) was selected as an ideal location to display herbaceous plants and so became the first garden at RBG especially designed for plant collections. The site was selected for the iris collection due to providing ideal growing conditions.

In a twist of fate W.J. Moffat had been Dr. Laking’s math’s teacher so both were reunited through a shared love of iris. In 1946 during development of the collection W.J. Moffat was appointed the first director of the Canadian Iris society with Dr. Laking being appointed as secretary. This provided further impetus for expanding and developing the collection which we admire today. Both cultivars ‘W.J. Moffat’ and ‘Laurentian Lady’ are present in the collection today providing a testament to Ontario iris hybridizers, RBG staff members past and present in preserving the collection for future generations of Canadians, iris scholars and enthusiasts.

As a living museum RBG holds several specialist cultivar collections such as the iris in Laking Garden. The Living Collections are of botanical, historical and academic interest to iris and peony experts, scholars, Canadian Iris Society, flower and plant societies, horticultural clubs, universities, colleges, and green industry professionals. On a continent-wide scale, they hold interest for international cultivar registration authorities, American Iris Society, and other botanic and public gardens with interest in these genera.

Cultivated plants (such as iris) have been bred and selected for beauty, flavour, scent, landscape improvement, resistance to pests, pathogens and to provided resilience to challenges such as climate change, loss of habitat and global poverty. The preservation of such plants and preserving genetic diversity amongst plant species is critical to the well being of our species and so requires vigilance. The breeding of cultivated plants involves an enormity of human effort and inventiveness that is lost forever if such plants cease to be grown and the stories relating to these plants are lost from human memory.

The careful and detailed curation of RBG’s collections results in the discovery of charismatic stories. The particular story of William Miles, W.J. Moffat and Dr, Lesley Laking and their botanical pursuits helps document and preserve the artistic, intellectual, cultural, and scientific activities of human endeavour related to biodiversity preservation. Like any artefact in a museum, the careful curation of iris ‘W.J. Moffat’ has revealed a captivating story that adds, in its own small way, to the sum knowledge of our species world heritage. As a wise man once said, “We are all stories in the end, just make it a good one.”

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