In April 1926, Mrs. Wheeler H. Peckham, honorary curator of the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), addressed the New Orleans Garden Society at the residence of Mrs. L. Kemper Williams. Her presentation focused on preserving Louisiana's native iris. Mrs. Peckham had been touring the region with NYBG curator Dr. John K. Small and botanical magazine editor E.J. Alexander. The team was alarmed at the rapid disappearance of southeastern Louisiana's iris fields.
'During the past twenty-five years, I have witnessed the most frightful destruction amongst the irises within the city limits of New Orleans and adjoining parishes, even worse than that of the Frenchmen Street location. At the junction of Washington and Carrollton Avenues, there was a patch of several acres, which when in bloom appeared to be a solid mass of iris; today not one remains. At the site of Newcomb College there was a fine stand of Iris fulva. This has disappeared entirely.'
Small considered New Orleans the biological and geographical center of Louisiana iris culture, and lamented the disappearance of the Bayou Sauvage fields in Gentilly and the dwindling of the Frenchmen Street field:
"The present condition of the well-known Frenchmen Street iris fields attracts one's attention. The marsh along which and through which Frenchmen Street was built was a celebrated iris field, for many years a favorite place for the citizens interested in iris to observe and gather specimens or bouquets. Manufacturing plants finally began to use the marsh as a dumping ground for refuse, and today most of the former iris growth has been buried, and only a few isolated patches of the plants of the several species that once thrived here in countless numbers remain in the landscape."
Small and Peckham called on the citizens of New Orleans to save Louisiana's native irises. They returned to New Orleans many times, with Small collecting specimens for the NYBG, and naming innumerable natural hybrids or species variants.
Quoted matter from John K. Small, "Vanishing Iris." Reports on Florida Explorations 76, offprint from Journal of the New York Botanical Garden 32 (1931): pp. 277-288. Garden Library of the New Orleans Town Gardeners, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.
Images, top to bottom:
Top: "In the delta of the Pearl River, Louisiana. A small patch of Iris giganticaerulea in the foreground. The 'weed-wagon' (the popular name for our collecting motor) in the background."
Center: "Collecting iris in swamp at Arabi, Louisiana. Colonies large and small of many kinds of iris occur here. This swamp and those of Gentilly are the richest in various kinds of iris."
Bottom: "Our tallest-stemmed iris--Iris giganticaerulea, growing in a swamp near Cut-Off, Louisiana. In this swamp violet-flowered irises prevailed. The plants were mostly three to five feet tall. The plants in the colony shown above were fully seven feet tall. If some of the dropping leaves were straightened, they would overtop one's head."
Images from John K. Small, "Salvaging the Native American Irises." Reports on Florida Explorations 73, offprint from Journal of the New York Botanical Garden 32 (1931): pp. 175-184. Garden Library of the New Orleans Town Gardeners, Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.