Nature’s Rainbow

WAXAHACHIE, TX — When David Smith and his wife, Pat, moved to their home on Main Street in March 2003, they had a slight difference of opinion. While Pat wanted their belongings moved in first, David had a strong desire to go looking for compost. “Compost was his priority,” Pat recalled with a smile. “We had no pot to eat out of and no bed to sleep in, but we had compost.”

“It was really good compost,” David added with a grin. Some may wonder why compost was so important. It had everything to do with David’s vision, which actually began years earlier when his mother, Jan Smith, “shared” her irises with him. Pat’s mother’s neighbor, Irene Price, shared 99 rhizomes, or bulbs, with the couple. “Then F.E. Hoefer Jr. of Ennis continued to share with us,” David said. “He gave us dozens of different irises, along with a lot of discussion and counsel. He taught me irises need to be thinned out and shared every four years. Sharing is what it’s all about. If you aren’t into sharing, you really don’t need to grow irises.”

As the couple settled into their new home, the iris garden came to life. The talk of the neighborhood soon became the talk of the town. “Since 2005, we have opened our yard up to family and friends during the month of April so we can share the wonder of the iris,” Pat explained. “The plants know what to do. They show off for us every spring.” Their yard has been visited by a bus group from the Dallas Iris Society and the Four Seasons Garden Club of Waco.

Several key individuals in the community started to take notice of the beauty and notoriety the irises were having well beyond the community. The idea to designate the iris as the city flower was discussed at length in 2006 by David, Susie Braden, the Master Gardeners, John Smith from the city’s parks department and Debra Wakeland from the Chamber of Commerce. Thirty of David and Pat’s friends petitioned the city with the request, showing up at the council meeting with a huge bouquet of freshly cut irises. In May of 2008, David and Pat were honored with a proclamation from the Waxahachie City Council. “They declared the iris the official flower of the city,” David beamed. David and Pat are not selfish when it comes to the flowers they love. They find great pleasure in passing the beauty on whenever and wherever they can. David provides vases of cut irises at each city council meeting held in April, when the flowers are at their most beautiful. He also provided iris vases for the Lenten luncheons held at the First United Methodist Church. Pat assembled a “contribution box” in the garden throughout the month of April. At the end of the month, she donates the money contributed to the Dinah Weable Breast Cancer luncheon, which in turn provides free mammograms at Hope Clinic. In the two years the box has been available, Pat has donated $800 to the cause.

The Smith’s two granddaughters, Isabella and Titiana, along with their Girl Scout Troop 877, planted irises at Hope Clinic. David and Larry Felty planted irises in front of the two historic buildings located at Singleton Plaza. “Larry wanted the old style, known as flag irises,” David shared. “They are the slim ones that are mostly found in cemeteries. The ones we planted have continued to bloom well.”

Thanks to their giving spirits, irises give inviting color to Daniel’s Den, as well as the historic Women’s Building. The Smith’s iris garden has also been the setting for some wonderful photographs for family, close friends and even people the Smiths had never met before. “My Global High seniors gather to take their prom pictures in the garden,” Pat said. “We’ve even hosted two brides and a family reunion.”

Looking back, the colors of irises today have come a long way from the simple whites, purples and yellows of earlier days. This is due to hybridization, a lengthy process that keeps the different variations of irises evolving. Today, 80,000 registered names exist of the hybridized bearded iris alone, with not a single “true red” one in the bunch because of the flower’s lack of lycopene. “The hybridizer blends two flowers, a father and a mother, together to see if it’s the color, size and variation they want,” David explained as best he could in layman’s terms. “Once they get the results they’re looking for, they start the process over again, but this time they do several at one time to see if they remain the same.”

Once the hybridization of the new flower is complete, they are mass produced for sale. “The person who hybridized the flower gets to name it,” 

David said. “It’s hard, tedious work, but the outcome is worth it when you look at the different variations available to iris lovers.” New rhizomes can cost as much as $75 each, but David and Pat wait until the “newness wears off.” “We’ll pay $5 for each rhizome,” Pat laughed, “but not much more.”

David and Pat took a trip to Florence, Italy, to attend the International Competition of Hybridizers. While there, they learned so much more about the iris. They saw first hand the six acres of irises at the Florence Iris Garden where olive trees grow amongst the flowers. They not only judge size, look, bloom and color, but they also judge the flower’s fragrance. “The United States has won many times,” David shared, “but so have the Australians and Japanese.”

“The fleur-de-lis is the symbol of Florence. It’s seen everywhere,” Pat stated. “Fleur-de-lis stands for flower lily. An iris is a lily, and the lily is also a symbol of the Virgin Mary.”

The iris comes in all shapes, sizes and colors thanks to those who enjoy the tedious work of hybridization. David and Pat have well over 100 species, or colors, of bearded irises in their backyard alone.

The flowers can and need to be looked at in more than one way. Sometimes the beauty is seen in the profile; while other times the real beauty is found from looking downward. “The dwarf ones are meant to be seen from the top,” Pat explained. “Other times, especially with the taller flowers, you want to see the detail when looking straight at the profile of the flower.”

David’s mom shared her irises, making it easy for him and Pat to share them with the community they love. “They are God’s gift,” David confessed. “He keeps them flourishing. We just tend them.”

Written by Sandra Strong.