I first met Lucy Skellorn at Helmingham Hall Autumn Plant Heritage Fair in 2019, where I found she was selling historic Irises. I’ve always been interested in finding out more about the origins of our garden flowers, so stopped to chat with her about it.
I discovered that Lucy is the Gt Gt Granddaughter of Sir Michael Foster (1836-1907) – a Victorian Professor of Physiology at Cambridge University, who loved to collect and breed bearded Irises as a hobby.
A contemporary and friend of Charles Darwin, he set about collecting Iris species plants from far flung corners of the world as was the Victorian tradition. He was able to breed new varieties by mixing what he chose to be the best species and is now thought of as the Father of the modern Iris hybrids. His ground-breaking plants were stronger with better and bigger flowers – and highly scented. These more successful new plants turned out to have a greater number of chromosomes than the originals, although scientific knowledge was not advanced enough at the time to realise that this was why the plants were more successful. Sir Michael’s progress was based purely upon his observations, note-taking and contemporary scientific skills, as he continued to strive to produce the best hybrids. These plants were later found to be tetraploids ( 4 sets of chromosomes) and this factor, because of his work, meant that later breeders were able to produce an almost never-ending list of colourful varieties – although the scent has diminished considerably from many.
Whilst on the subject of chromosomes; there was obviously a strong enough ‘genetic memory’ for Lucy to switch her career after 10 years to retrain in Horticulture – and through this – and some previous research carried out by her mother, she began to discover just how important her ancestor had been. Her quest to collect her Gt Gt Grandfather’s creations and preserve them for posterity had begun …
When I met up with Lucy again – at the 2021 Spring Plant Heritage Fair – she invited me to visit her Suffolk garden whilst the Irises were in bloom in order to take some photographs.
Lucy’s cottage is in the middle of nowhere, where just a few houses are dotted along a small country lane in rural Suffolk. Stepping into the garden felt like escaping from the world’s mayhem for a while, especially as the overall style was relaxed, informal, definitely ‘cottage garden’. Lucy apologised that the grass and general appearance was rather unkempt, as she had just been away for a week’s holiday. I actually thought that it was delightful; the lushness adding to my feeling of escape to a simpler time and place – where children explored and played hide and seek amongst the wildflowers and tall grasses, chickens clucked contentedly and a small scruffy-haired black dog darted about the undergrowth keeping watch over his territory. There were no long gardening ‘to-do’ lists, no garden manicuring required – just some dead-heading of spent Iris blooms here and here – heavenly.
It was a wild, romantic garden, separated into sections by informal hedges, culminating in a rented meadow-like area, past the chicken run and overgrown with nettles, cow parsley and wildflowers – within which Lucy has expanded to create a cultivated section for her to grow more of her historic Irises. Lucy had told me not to expect anything grand for the setting of her National Collection – however I loved the fact that these beautiful flowers existed in this informal wild space. The Irises, unperturbed by their surroundings, were all growing happily, their rhizomes baking in the hot, afternoon sun. They had all that they needed.
Juxtaposed with this peace and solitude is an army helicopter base within a few miles of the cottage and I asked Lucy if this bothered the family. She told me that they honestly didn’t notice it too much, as it had been something they had become accustomed to. I had to admit that I found it hardly intruded during my visit and decided it was a small inconvenience when set against the benefits of such a swathe of unspoilt and largely uninhabited Suffolk countryside.
After a tour of the Irises from Lucy and an introduction to the hens by Lucy’s children, I set about exploring the garden on my own. I’d picked one of the sunniest days in June to visit, so photographs were mostly reserved for much later when the sun started to set and a golden glow pervaded the garden.
There were 5 main varieties of Sir Michael’s hybrids in bloom, plus one notable collected Iris, called Amas (collected 1885), the latter being used extensively in his breeding programme. Some were planted within the cottage garden itself and giving height and structure to the borders. The rest were in special Iris beds, each hybrid having its own section. To keep Bearded Irises at their best, they need the space around them so that their rhizomes are exposed to the sun and not shaded by other plants. In addition, Lucy has kept Irises sourced from different places separately, so she can keep a watch on whether there’s any difference in their growing patterns.
Sir Michael created around 68 hybrids and also had his collection of species plants from which his cultivars were created. Lucy has managed to source about a dozen of these in total – and has 2 exciting newcomers arriving from the US later in the year. It’s not an easy thing to track down these plants and some have sadly disappeared forever – so her research started with the most obvious ones. I asked if she had Sir Michael’s notebooks detailing his Iris breeding work. They were interestingly bequeathed to his friend and fellow plant breeder, Ellen Wilmott of Warley Place ( which I love and have visited several times) and they are now kept in the Linnean Society’s archives. Lucy has visited but says the notes are difficult to follow and very technical. I wonder if a knowledgeable hybridiser could recreate any lost varieties – if expense was no object and if the species Irises used in the breeding were still obtainable?
For my visit, I was treated to 3 white cultivars :-
Firstly, the striking and tall ‘Kashmir’ (1912); white with its golden-patterned falls –
Next, ‘Mrs Horace Darwin’(1888) and ‘Mrs George Darwin’ (1895) – named after 2 of Charles’ daughter-in-laws. The former is white with purple streaking on its falls and the latter has gold mixed with the purple veining. I have purchased a small group of these two for my own garden and I’m very excited because they looked beautifully pure and ethereal in Lucy’s – especially the ‘Horace’ grown in her borders with the smoky purple of Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’. An idea that I am definitely going to attempt to replicate next year at home.
There were 3 blues – all tall with multiple levels of blooms. Caterina (1909) with its copper-coloured streaking and Crusader ((1913) with its scented violet blue blooms. Amas, a very striking Iris collected by Sir Michael, has pale violet standards with rich violet falls.
The lighting conditions gave me many different effects on the petals, as did the myriad of shapes produced by the standards when viewed from different angles. The beards, in differing intensities of yellow and gold provided a flash of contrast to the petals, the latter having, (on all the varieties), a lovely glistening lustre/ frosting which adds a touch of magic to the flowers, especially if you can catch it on the photographs.
Here are some more of my images of the different Foster Hybrids – starting with ‘Mrs Horace Darwin’ which was my favourite of the day -:
Next is ‘Kashmir’ -:
…and finally for the whites, ‘Mrs George Darwin’
‘Amas’ was so striking and beautiful …
One of Sir Michael’s collected Irises was this delicately simple paler blue species from Italy, called Loppio. It was found growing on the northern slopes of Monte Baldo overlooking Lake Loppio in the Trentino region. Monte Baldo was given the epithet ‘Hortus Italiae’ – ‘The Garden of Italy’ – because of its richness of vegetation and number of botanical rareties. I wonder which hybrids Sir Michael created from this beauty ?
Lucy is also very interested in – and collects – the Irises created by one of Sir Michael’s mentees, W R Dykes – who went on to produce many beautiful hybrids, with the help of his wife, in the 1920’s. Unfortunately, the sun was too strong to get suitable images, however, I hope to focus on those another time.
To complete Lucy’s Iris collection are some Cedric Morris ‘Benton Caramel’ in the borders, which complemented the other garden colours beautifully in the evening sun. Lucy is very much involved in promoting the re-establishment of Cedric Morris’ Benton End House in nearby Hadleigh. However, that’s a very interesting subject for another day….
By the time it has passed 8 o’clock, the sun, still not set, had cast its golden glow over the garden and the irises stood, still resplendent and fresh after a day of baking hot temperatures. That’s an amazing quality to have when you think of how delicate the petals appear with all their ruffles, twists and turns. I guess we have Sir Michael Foster (and now his Gt Gt Granddaughter Lucy) to thank for that !!