From the October 2003 issue of the Bulletin of the American Iris Society:

The 50th Anniversary of the
Sydney B. Mitchell Iris Society


Most of us associate the years 1953 with the revelation of the double helical structure of DNA by Watson and Crick; the conquest of Everest by Hillary and Tenzing; the coronation of Queen Elizabeth; the inauguration of President Eisenhower; the death of Stalin; or the publication of the 2nd volume of the Kinsey report, Sexual Behavior of the Human Female. But for iris gardeners in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1953 [marked] the establishment of the Sydney B. Mitchell Iris Society, named after the founder and Dean Emeritus of the University of california School of Librarianship, Sydney B. Mitchell.

In the months of April and May, students at Berkeley in the 1930s walked to the Berkeley Hills gardens of Mitchell and his neighbor, Carl Salbach, to see the remarkable iris display. Recognized as one of the premier early hybridizers of iris in the U.S., Professor Mitchell died before the founding of the Society. However, the detailed breeding records and well-documented seedlings that he and his predecessor, William Mohr, accumulated attracted many budding irisarians.

By 1953, with England and France (former centers of iris culture) concerned with rebuilding war damage, and with the U.S. population moving westward due to WWII needs, conditions were ripe for a surge in iris hybridizing. Within a few decades, the new introductions recorded by the American Iris Society showed a preponderance of West Coast breeders. Many of them spent some time as members of the Sydney B. Mitchell Iris Society and its member ship rolls are replete with the names of nationally acclaimed hybridizers: Gaulter, Rees, Meek, Denny, Ghio, Maryott, McWhirter, Lawyer, Brown, and Hutchings. In their continuing search for ideal growing conditions, many of these hybridizers moved to outlying areas in California and Oregon. Even today [2003] the Sydney B.Mitchell Iris Society is proud of active Hybridizers: Vernon Wood, Carl and LaRue Boswell, Glenn Corlew, Bob Canning, Jim Whitely, Virginia Messick, Abe Feuerstein, and others.

--Chuck Dekker


American Iris Society Sydney B. Mitchell Medal

Sydney Mitchell loved plants and gardening even as a small child. When he attended McGill University, he made friends with the university gardener who gave him irises. Mitchell's brother allowed him to grow the irises in his backyard and he soon had a very large collection. His wife shared his interest in plants, and when he moved to California, where he worked at the Stanford University Library, they began their lifelong collaboration in the garden. In 1911, Mitchell moved to Berkeley to head the purchasing department of the University of California library, and the Mitchells took their iris collection with them

Prof. Sydney Mitchell was an educator. He became Acting Librarian at the University of California during WW I, and later founded and became first director of the Graduate School of Librarianship at that university. He was also one of the organizers of the American Iris Society, president and editor of the California Horticultural Society, a founding member of the American Fuchsia Society, and a prodigious author on gardening subjects for gardening and horticultural magazines and journals. He wrote four books: Gardening in California, From a Sunset Garden, Your California Garden and Mine, and Iris for Every Garden.

Tom Craig wrote this of him: "Sydney looked upon plant breeding as a long term international effort in which individuals from all over the world should co-operate and add generation after generation to a real human achievement. He made me feel a real part of this and more particularly a part of a special work started by William Mohr and carried on by himself. Sydney generously gave flowers and plants of seedling for further encouragement with this work."

Sydney Mitchell's collaboration with William Mohr, - and his continuation of Mohr's breeding lines is now one of the legends of the AIS. Mitchell also bred outstanding irises of his own, and was especially interested in obtaining large flowered yellow tall bearded irises. Some of his finest cultivars are 'Alta California,' `Happy Days,' `Naranja,' 'Natividad,' and `Fair Elaine.'

Mitchell was also interested in the native irises of the West Coast, and promoted them at every opportunity. He took great pride in the plantings of PCNs in his own garden. He had a large collection of various forms of I. innominata and I. douglasiana.

--Clarence Mahan, February 24, 2007, Courtesy AIS website: www.irises.org

los angelessan francisco
Los Angeles (Mitchell-Mohr, 1927) TB
San Francisco (Mitchell-Mohr, 1927) TB

pcn iris from Ryan Grisso
hybrid Pacific Coast iris

purissimasanta cruzsunol
Tall Bearded Iris: Purissima (Mitchell-Mohr, 1927), Santa Cruz (Mitchell 1945), Sunol (Mitchell-Mohr, 1933)

Tall bearded iris photos
courtesy Mary Hess of Bluebird Haven Iris Garden

An amusing tidbit from "1951, In Memoriam," published by the Academic Senate, University of California, Berkeley:
"...Mr. Mitchell's initial experiment in horticulture was made at the tender age of five. It is reported that the description of chocolate as a plant led him to bury a piece in his garden as the first step toward ownership of a chocolate plantation. Undaunted by this failure, he continued his experiments until he became the top gardener of his neighborhood. Flowers and plants were his constant companions from that time to the end. His scientific contribution to floriculture is best illustrated by his development of bearded iris. The list of his introductions is long indeed. Their importance is demonstrated by many awards from the American Iris Society, including a medal in1941. The (English) Iris Society awarded him the Dykes medal in 1927 and the Foster Memorial Plaque in 1944."