By Currier McEwen
Published by University Press of New England, Hanover, New Hampshire,
Reviewed by A. R. Ferguson
There are some books
that are immediately attractive. The Japanese Iris is one
such book. It is not just that it handles well and is handsomely
produced, that the drawings are good, that the colour plates are
mostly magnificent, or, even, that it is well written. It is more
that the author, Currier McEwen seems such an agreeable man who
would, I imagine, be good company and good fun. His personality
comes through in his writing.
He is not, however, too
amiable or unfailingly kind and at times a crotchety note does emerge.
The chapter on insect and other pests concludes: "Finally we come
to the problem of the garden visitor who does not know the rules
of good garden manners. One should not hesitate to ask that handbags,
camera bags and the like not be carried into the rows ... Fortunately
today's fashion styles do not encourage the visitor to wear the
wide loose skirts common some years ago. One can still remember
with dismay the havoc caused when a visitor in one of the "ballerina
skirts" turned quickly. The billowing, twirling skirt could take
off a dozen blossoms. With fashion's trend to narrower skirts and,
especially slacks, the problem of inappropriate dress has rarely
been a danger in recent years and the main hazard continues to be
the dangling bag, with as runners up, unsupervised small children
and unleashed dogs." Clearly, you are expected to behave when you
visit Dr Currier.
The author was for many
years Dean of the School of Medicine at New York University. Now,
almost 90, he writes well with easy authority and ready wit. His
text is straightforward, clean and economical and his definitions
and choice of words often most apt "nicely organised, compact
form", "single flower of flaring, rather tailored form", "ruffled
white form and dark blue-violet edging". There is a good glossary
of terms and it is a delight to find a horticultural book that is
properly referenced, with citations to specific comments in the
text and allowing those interested to read more widely.
One of the most appealing
features of this book is its strong emphasis on the history of the
Japanese iris and its place in Japanese culture. This allows us
to understand better the aims of the early Japanese breeders. For
example, a very special use of the Higo iris was in the ritual of
the Act. A well-grown potted iris of suitable type was taken inside
and placed in front of a golden screen. The follower of the ritual
meditated as the flower slowly opened and changed hour by hour.
Against such a golden background flowers of pure white or single
colours were considered to be more beautiful than those with pale
colours or patterns. A single magnificent bloom was more suitable
than a branched inflorescence. Now that Higo irises are more widely
grown outside, the requirements of breeders have changed.
There is also an account
of the history of the Japanese iris in the United States. This will
probably be of less interest to readers in this country but, together
with an appendix, it describes how the Japanese iris was taken from
its homeland and distributed throughout the world.
I found the chapters
dealing with the classification of the Japanese iris to be rather
less satisfactory. I would have liked fuller descriptions of the
most closely related species. Furthermore, in the first chapter,
that dealing with the history of the Japanese iris in japan, we
are told how Japanese irises were classified as Edo, Higo or Ise
types, according to their geographic origin but the distinguishing
features of the flowers of each type are not described until the
third chapter. The classification of modern hybrids is summarised
very clearly in the fourth chapter.
The chapters covering
cultivation, use in the garden, pests and diseases seem comprehensive
and contain much common sense. Throughout there is stress on the
value of Japanese irises as garden plants and this is emphasised
by the thirty two colour plates. The photographs are almost all
excellent technically and the blooms displayed extraordinarily beautiful.
Dr Currier has devoted
himself to the Japanese iris for more than thirty years and has
gained much success as a hybridiser. Thus he has four times won
the Payne Award, the highest Award of the American Iris Society.
About a quarter of The Japanese Iris is devoted to an authoritative
account of hybridizing, the handling of seeds and seedlings, the
evaluation of seedlings and the registration of cultivars. These
chapters may be of little practical value to the home gardener but
they are definitely worth reading, especially the appraisal of what
makes a "good" garden plant.
I enjoyed The Japanese
Iris. I doubt that I would ever be inspired to attempt breeding
but it has encouraged me to contemplate making another bog garden,
this time for Japanese irises.
in New Zealand: Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture
1991 2(1): 34-35
Reviews Main Page
McEwen died on June 23, 2003-shortly after his 101st birthday.