And yet sooner or later you run into one that might have been placed upon this earth for the sole purpose of allowing the rest of us to exercise the virtue of patience. These club vets had learned how terrible it feels to tangle with status-hungry control freaks and how funny one’s fury becomes, years after the fact, when recollected in the presence of a fellow sufferer. They had learned that even a simple committee project like stapling a show brochure can drag you through the cruelest knotholes ever threaded by forbearance.
Many people would quit a club because of one obnoxious member or because antagonism between two obnoxious members interrupted some fantasy of elegance. But then they’d never reach the heartfelt chuckles shared by not only these two men but other stalwarts of the San Diego/Imperial Counties Iris Society. In two weeks I heard a lot of outrageously funny gossip, most of which I swore not to repeat. But death releases some of the material. For instance, one now feels safe admitting that while the San Diego Floral Association lost an army when it lost Penny Bunker, the iris society lost its only member relentlessly committed to dusting and displaying silver show trophies the way they had always been dusted and displayed, so help her God. Or that the late Dot Runde was not precisely a timid person.
I learned that members of the iris society cherish a sometimes giddy intimacy built upon more than acquisitive interest in a flowering monocot. They may have joined because they decided to like irises (in Walt’s case he may have joined because his mother decided to like irises), but years later they remain irisarians because of something more, something not exactly to do with horticulture and not exactly to do with keeping busy, something touchy-feely sounding that is nonetheless a redemptive force in the lives of those wise enough to accept it. I will not embarrass my hosts by naming that something. Suffice it to say that when you stick with the same group of people for a long time, you begin to participate in hilarious understandings.
As ten-year club member Pat Brendel of Fallbrook put it, “We’ve occasionally thought of quitting, especially when we’re so busy and our health has not been good. It isn’t always easy keeping up. But I would have to give up those people down there, and I do not want to give up on those people.”
The iris club almost gave up on itself two years back. Decrepit, exhausted, and dying off, it almost released its affiliation with the American Iris Society and disbanded. By some accounts, that would have been a sensible choice. Times change; volunteers drop away, and most iris varieties are not the easiest plants to market here. Young people, people with families, do not want to spend Sunday afternoons at the senior center talking about why earwigs gobble iris pollen when they could be down at the beach with their children, happily dodging sea creature poop. And ’90s gardeners aren’t willing to spend vast sums on separate memberships to the rose society, the daylily society, the geranium society, and the iris society when they could spend one small sum and join a general-purpose garden club or the San Diego Horticultural Society, which meets weekdays after work. Floral societies that convene at the convenience of creaky old ladies too afraid of the freeway to drive at night are, by several accounts, obsolete.
So this obsolete iris group thought long and hard about suicide. Good gossip in Walter McNeel’s back yard, where he cracks wise with George Bange over once painful adventures in their iris world, does not explain how their club has survived so far; but every time I think of them laughing I feel a little happier that it has.
With his scruffy white beard and frayed suspenders, 64-year-old Walter McNeel might be an Ozark mountain craftsman; but he’s a La Mesa boy who adored his iris-loving mother, Freda, and carries on her hobby by fits and starts. He began attending meetings at age 27 and presided over the society several times. For a while he was Mr. Iris, dashing off to conventions and American Iris Society (AIS) regional treks, but an auto accident in 1980 wrecked his upper body. He does a little hybridizing now, because it requires no heavy lifting.
His mother hybridized — that is, crossbred — an iris or two, including one she registered under the name ‘Apricot Jubilee.’ Here is how the American Iris Society’s 370-page “Iris Check List of Registered Cultivar Names 1970–1979” describes her creation:
“apricot jubilee (F. McNeel, R. 1975) Sdlg. B-40. TB, 32" (81 cm), M. Ruffled and fringed apricot, flushed peach, orange beard. (New Frontier x Celestial Glory) X Orange Parade.”
Can’t you just smell it? The ais puts out 16 reference books full of such stuff, coded descriptions of every named iris on record. By my count (which leans heavily on a report by the unfortunately named Howard Hughes, who is typing the 16 volumes into a computer database), in January 1999 the ais had registered 44,874 cultivars, not including obsolete names.
Freda’s is not a complicated listing. Many require strange coding to describe varying coloration on the flowers’ three bloom parts, the upward-tending standards, the downward sloping falls, and the short style arms that arch out from the blossom’s ungagging throat, bearing the female stigmatic lip protectively above the male anther. Often these colors are translated into mysterious number codes or such arcane terms as “baby ribbon pink” and “saturn red.” They require much deciphering.
The names matter more than the beauty of the blooms. Non-irisarians don’t know this and society members protest if you suggest it, but the fact remains. Ask the most prestigious iris clubwoman in California, Claire Barr of Rancho Bernardo. Claire is a past president of the American Iris Society and its only woman president since the national association’s founding in 1920.