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The Story of Iris versicolor 'Murrayana'

By Todd Boland (Todd_BolandJuly 7, 2012
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The white-flowered blue flag iris, I. versicolor 'Murrayana' has an interesting history. Found in Newfoundland, lost, then rediscovered elsewhere and repatriated, this article may be of interest to plant history buffs! Certainly, beardless iris lovers will find this an interesting story.

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(Editor's Note:  This article was originally published on November 21, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)

Among my favourite native wildflowers are Iris versicolor and I. hookeri (aka I. setosa subsp. canadensis). For many years I have scoured the Island looking for aberrant colour forms of these iris. Iris hookeri has proven to be remarkably consistent in its colour. However, I. versicolor has shown variation from pale blue to deep purple-blue. However, until recently, the white form of either species has eluded me. If you look up both species in M. L. Fernald's Gray's Manual of Botany, you will see a description of the white forms: pallidiflora for the white form of I. hookeri and 'Murrayana' for the white form of I. versicolor. Next to that latter listing, it says "named in 1936 for its discoverer Andrew Murray". The world is full of coincidences. Five years ago I was contacted by the vice-president of the British Iris Society in regards to an article, he was writing for their newsletter, about the white form of I. versicolor found in Newfoundland by Andrew Murray in the 1930s. I was floored! I never realized that the described white form in Gray's Manual of Botany was originally discovered in Newfoundland. Through further correspondence I learned the truth about this iris.

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Standard I. versicolor growing in the Newfoundland countryside

Apparently, Andrew Murray discovered the white form of I. versicolor growing along the Salmonier River, located about 65 km from my home city of St. John's. Having never seen a white iris in the wild, Mr. Murray placed an enquiry in St. John's about his discovery. His finding came to the attention of one of our foremost amateur botanists of the time, Agnes Marion Ayre. She contacted Mr. Murray about the plant and he dug it up and brought it to her (quite an undertaking in the 1930s when only horse and buggy were available locally). She personally contacted Fernald about the discovery and also sent a piece of the root to a friend in the UK. Fernald then named the white form ‘Murrayana' as a tribute to its discoverer Andrew Murray. There has never been any reference to what happened to Ms. Ayre's plant locally, but apparently, the I. versicolor forma Murrayana she sent to the UK flourished and was passed around to other iris lovers in Europe and, I was to discover, overseas to the U.S.

In July 2005, the Newfoundland Rock Garden Society hosted the Annual Summer Meeting of the North American Rock Garden Society. During the conference I got to meet many avid gardeners and several members of various garden interest groups from across Canada and the United States. I mentioned this iris to several people. One of these people was Helga Andrews, a member of the New England Wildflower Society. She recognized the name and thought that it was available in the U.S. She offered to do some investigating stateside to see if she could find a source. About 2 weeks after the conference I got an email from her explaining that Marty Schafer and Jan Sacks, members of the Species Iris Group of North America (SIGNA) actually sold this selection from their company, Joe Pye Weed's Gardens, a mail-order iris nursery in Massachusetts (well-known to most beardless iris lovers). I contact Marty and Jan, explaining to them the story behind ‘Murrayana'. They were completely unaware that the selection originated from Newfoundland. What's amazing, is that they have had this selection in their possession for over 25 years and that it had changed hands many times before they gained access to it. I asked if I might purchase one. They were so intrigued about learning the story behind ‘Murrayana', they actually shipped two lovely robust plants from their nursery in Massachusetts to the Memorial University of Newfoundland Botanical Garden (where I work) free of charge, a very generous act. So after about 70 years, Iris versicolor forma Murrayana has finally made it back to its place of origin.

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Comparison between 'Murrayana' (left) and 'Versicle' (right), a nearly pure white selection

A footnote about this plant. The following year, when ‘Murrayana' bloomed I was rather taken aback. In reality, it does not look like a typical Iris versicolor. The flower stems are significantly shorter than the leaves, in fact, the blooms are almost hidden my them. The falls are much narrower than any other selections of I. versicolor I've seen. Some authorities claim ‘Murrayana' is not I. versicolor, rather, is a form of I. virginica var. shrevei. However, the closest that species occurs to Newfoundland is over a 1000 miles away in upper New York State! I crossed 'Murrayana' to our native I. versicolor and other named selections of I. versicolor. The offspring end up looking like regular I. versicolor but are extremely vigorous... much taller than either parent and often with purplish spring growth. In theory, flower variation would most likely occur in the next generation, but these hybrids appear to be mostly sterile. Either no seeds form or those that do will not germinate. If ‘Murrayana' were a normal I. versicolor, then the offspring should be able to produce lots of seed. Not only is the origin of this plant unusual, but the genetics appears quite baffling too. Hopefully, some genetic work in the future will finally determine the mystery that lies behind I. versicolor ‘Murrayana'!

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Comparison of 'Murrayana' to a standard Newfoundland I. versicolor


  About Todd Boland  
Todd BolandI reside in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. I work as a research horticulturist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland Botanical Garden. I am one of the founding members of the Newfoundland Wildflower Society and the current chair of the Newfoundland Rock Garden Society. My garden is quite small but I pack it tight! Outdoors I grow mostly alpines, bulbs and ericaceous shrubs. Indoors, my passion is orchids. When not in the garden, I'm out bird watching, a hobby that has gotten me to some lovely parts of the world.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Did you ever... threegardeners 9 78 Jul 9, 2012 3:22 AM
Detective story? lortay 0 5 Nov 26, 2009 3:57 PM
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