Sharlyn Rocha: "There are people who actually get into fights over these things."
  • Sharlyn Rocha: "There are people who actually get into fights over these things."
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Walt swipes at his watering eyes. "Yeah," he says, momentarily gaining control of himself. "Oh yeah. We have stuff to talk about besides iris." "Ah-boy," says George. "Ahh, boy."

Only one iris is native to San Diego, I. missouriensis. The first batch lines the boggy lakeshore in Cuyamaca State Park across the street from Wally’s Lakeland Resort, the other two crawl over private property on the far side of Lake Cuyamaca.

For some reason George’s sighing tickles Walt all over again, and there the two of them sit, aging gardeners grunting in cheap patio chairs under a charmless Clairemont sky. Around them the last flurry of Walt’s irises perks skyward, their necks craning to escape from smothering weeds he doesn’t have strength to yank.

These old boys are laughing themselves sick.

Walt McNeel and George Bange. For a while McNeel was Mr. Iris, but an auto accident in 1980 wrecked his upper body.

I knew they’d been self-conscious because my errand put them in the uncomfortable position of feeling inspected in their own back yards. A strange woman in a ridiculous hat had thrust herself into their lives, brandishing a tape recorder and demanding to know why they were involved with the tiny San Diego/Imperial Counties Iris Society. For a week and a half I’d asked any number of pert or bonehead questions, and for all they knew I was plotting to caricature them in print, or worse, to ferret out petty quarrels among the club’s longtime members and hold those up as depravity that hip readers might condemn — the self-centeredness of middle-class retirees, perhaps. Proof the instant intimacies of Shangri-La mask materialist despair.

Steve Rocha at iris show in Balboa Park. His aunt and uncle own Nicholson’s Woodland Iris Gardens in Modesto.

Oh, my. I might have been up to that.

Yet even not knowing my motives, these men were hosts first and interview subjects second, intelligent hosts with more knowledge to share than I could absorb. They’d detailed the genetic histories of bearded irises with intriguing names, such as ‘Almost Gladys’ and ‘Chocolate Shake.’ They’d given me their recollections of local plant breeders and other, semifamous hybridizers they’d met over the past four decades.

Don Maurizio spends $400 to $500 a year on new introductions for his mother.

They’d explained which iris species do well here and which don’t and told me about local soils, how in some areas of this county the stuff you’re killing your back to dig into is decomposed granite while in others it merely looks like granite. Along the coast and on uplifted mesas such as Clairemont, it’s highly cemented, slightly metamorphosed sandstone conglomerates speckled with modeling clay. In some pockets the modeling clay’s predominant. Most of this natural bounty’s infertile and rendered even more so when irrigated using mineral-salt-laden tap water from the Colorado River. And, as a bonus, the surface of some of these soils repels water.

(If I weren’t afraid of exclamation points, I would station one at the end of that last sentence.)

They showed me unfamiliar iris cousins including the Walking Iris, Neomarica gracilis, and its “nonwalking” friend Neomarica caerulea, and also Watsonia, which burgeons upward like a gifted and talented gladiola. Glads are iris cousins too, of course. George kept me from tripping over the grassy Homerias and gently suggested I temper my enthusiasm for the South African import Dietes, or Fortnight Lily, featured in such exotic garden locales as the Food 4 Less parking lot.

In short, Walt and George did a bang-up job of validating their local reputations as iris authorities. But then, in one moment, they lost it.

One minute they were sharing small stories about visiting big commercial iris nurseries, and the next they were near hysterics.

Months later I replay my tape of this interview over and over, trying to pinpoint which chuckle pushed them over the edge. They are self-composed, apparently fond of one another but just a bit awkward with me. Then they are silly.

I rev the tape backward and listen to it again. There I am, asking about one of the founders of their local society, a frail thing with good clothes and bad posture I’d met the day before at the iris show in Balboa Park. I ask if Thelma Carrington was, in her club-founding prime, what social critics back in Arkansas call a “tea lady.”

“No, she’s kind of homefolks,” George says. “Not a tea party attitude.”

“No,” Walt says, pondering. He starts to chuckle. “We had our person for that business.” I can see him arch his white eyebrows at George, who snorts in response.

“I’d better not say any more.” Walt scooches higher in his chair. “Be sued or something.” But then he guffaws. And then he just keeps going, in spite of the tape recorder I’d made a point of waving under his nose.

I remember how he plucked at his suspenders, spinning a howler about a long-forgotten iris-society soldier bee who stung herself in the butt for a room full of people mighty tired of her tyranny.

“She meant well, you know,” Walt said finally, reining himself in, making the effort people with good attitudes do remember to make, sooner or later.

There was a sober pause while he and George recollected their good attitudes.

“She meant well.”

“Ah yes,” said George.

Quiet fell among us for three seconds or so, but then Walt got the giggles.

“She was one of these that was always a stickler for Hoyle’s or whatever, Robert’s Rules of Order and all this stuff.”

George’s baritone boomed across the rosemary bushes. “Not only could you not get far enough away to avoid the hearing of it,” he said, “but she wouldn’t stop using it.”

A mockingbird dipped its tail in the loquat tree; a pile of junked rhizomes waved merrily in the compost barrel nearby; and the iris guys were off, regaling one another with gossip about worthy clubwomen of the past and their broomstick hobby horses.

This was not the kind of gossip in which one malicious person seeks an ignorant ear to scandalize, but rather the decent kind, the warm kind, the kind in which friends who’ve been through the wars admit their own complicity, their own failures on the civility front. I heard about the day Walt found himself unable to stop shouting, the day George said things he immediately wished he hadn’t said.

Through years of service in floral societies — George in the iris, daylily, and epiphyllum clubs, Walt in the iris society alone — they had learned that, by and large, gardeners are friendly people, upbeat, relaxed, and fun to be around.

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