The roar of 18-wheelers whizzing by on I-25 punctuates the otherwise bucolic setting and atmosphere of the Western Museum of Mining and Industry in far north Colorado Springs. A late afternoon thunderstorm rises in the western sky as I pull up beneath a row of massive cottonwoods, about to drop their seed.
My host is John Knudtson, keeper of the iris garden on the museum grounds. At the 1993 national convention of the American Iris Society, Knudtson volunteered to set up a garden in the rich creek bottom land, just up the road from where he works, and over a rise from his home. Now he spends about 8 hours a week weeding, mowing and irrigating the rectangular patch of land that has dominated his horticultural life for close to a decade.
For Knudtson, growing bearded iris is part art, part craft, part elbow grease and part science. His particular interest is hybridizing -- hand pollinating existing breeds by carefully removing the stamen and rubbing it across the stigmatic lip of the plant -- to create new varieties. The plants are allowed to go to seed, forming large seed pods in late summer and early fall. Tiny seeds are then kept in dampened sphagnum moss in the refrigerator for anywhere from 6 to 20 weeks, until they are painstakingly cultivated indoors in pots and eventually transplanted into the garden.
"One year, I had about 3,000 seeds which yielded about 600 seedlings," he says. "They were all over the house."
Once they are transplanted, it will be another year before the new genetic varieties bloom.
Knudtson grew up on a farm in Minnesota, and now works at Oracle in the Springs. Glancing across the field of long, tidy rows, he reminisces briefly about his mother's acres of iris. "This is as close as I can get to a farm in Colorado," he says.
The rows of hearty iris are labeled by names as colorful as their blossoms -- Colorado Gold, a deep yellow iris hybridized by a guy in a Denver suburb; Ooh-La-La, a 1994 yellow hybrid with a blue beard; Sonoran Sun.
Because iris must be divided regularly in order to continue blooming, Knudtson takes divisions of his 3 to 4-year-old plants each year and sells them to visitors at the museum's Pikes Peak Antique Machinery Days. The timing coincides with the perfect time to transplant iris -- after they have bloomed and while the summer sun is good and hot. Knudtson says they should have their new root systems established before autumn.
"Iris originated in the Middle East," he says, "so they will take dry, hot conditions really well. They should be planted in full sun. That's what they really like."
Knudtson is part of a long-standing tradition of dedicated iris hybridizers in Colorado Springs, following in the footsteps of Dr. Philip Loomis, who developed iris varieties in the '20s, '30s and '40s in what is now the old North End of the city. Loomis was lauded at the 1933-34 World's Fair for his "Seashells" iris, a pink and tangerine beauty praised by judges for having a "color ... not possible in nature ..." In the 1940s, Loomis developed the Elmohr iris (for which the local iris society is now named), winner of the highest award in iris growing, the Dykes Medal.
Thunder begins to crack overhead as we leave the garden, the sturdy iris stalks loaded with buds due to break open any day now. Knudtson says hybridizers across the world, in addition to enjoying creating beautiful new color mixes, seek the elusive grail of irisdom -- a true red iris.
"There's no true red iris. The closest we've come are pinks and sort of a dark violet," he says, adding with a grin, "But we all keep trying."
Fat raindrops stir the dust in the long driveway leading back to the main road. "Come back in about two weeks," he tells me. "The garden should be in full bloom by then."
My own iris, plain-old violet and pastel yellow varieties, have come and gone with just a few blossoms still lingering, but the show they provided this year -- with no late blizzards and plenty of sun -- has tickled my fancy and made me resolve to divide this summer, adding a few new varieties.
And if I shop at Knudtson's garden this weekend, I'll have 1,000 varieties to choose from.