In a New Jersey Garden, the Iris Reigns Supreme

Article excerpt

Spring has come late to many parts of the East Coast. The bright parade of flowers including narcissus, tulip, and dogwood has in its usual sequence been delayed.

Nevertheless, from now through the first week of June, 4,000 varieties of iris from dwarfs to tall bearded varieties are bursting into bloom in a rainbow arc on a hillside in Upper Montclair, N.J.

Designated a national historic landmark, the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens, now in their 70th year, are not just a botanists' library of current and historic irises, but an example of continuing civic involvement and pride. They are maintained by members of the Citizens' Committee, the Montclair Garden Club, the Township of Montclair, along with several hundred volunteers. Set in Mountainside Park, the gardens were established in 1927 to honor Frank H. Presby, a noted horticulturist and a founder of the American Iris Society. Mr. Presby developed iris seedlings and hybrids, naming one for his wife, Harriet. Another hybridizer named one for Presby's daughter Mildred. Today they grow side-by-side in a corner of the gardens. But the gardens were the life work of a local gardening guru, Barbara Walther. In 1921 she and her husband lived adjacent to the last stretch of fields and woodlands left in a town that was in the midst of a building boom. Mrs. Walther spearheaded fund-raising to purchase the lands as parks. For 50 years, she trained volunteers from the Montclair Garden Club as well as youngsters and retirees on how to care for the garden. When she died in 1977, support began to erode. Funds for two full-time gardeners were pruned from the town budget in 1981. Today volunteers under the guidance of a paid superintendent tend the gardens, keeping an eye on the beardless Siberian, Japanese, Louisiana, and Spuria varieties that grow along the old brook that sometimes runs through the garden. …