Fanatic about flowers: Richland iris enthusiast devotes hours daily

RICHLAND -- Everyone has a passion.

Some people collect coins, others show pedigreed dogs, and others spend hours on lake and rivers hoping to hook "The Big One."

But only a handful, such as Gerald Richardson of Richland, are passionate about hybridizing irises.

"There's not many of us," he admitted.

Richardson, 80, fell in love with the showy spring blooms in the 1940s while helping his mother, Lucille Richardson, tend her flower and vegetable gardens in Colorado.

"She loved all flowers but iris were her favorites," he said.

Richardson, a chemical engineer, came to work at Hanford in 1950. But it wasn't until 1954, when he and some friends rented an apartment off George Washington Way in Richland that he was able to indulge what he acknowledges is an obsession.

There were some empty flower beds around the apartments, so Richardson asked his mother to send some iris rhizomes. Iris can grow from seed but are commonly sold -- and traded one gardener to another -- in rhizome form, a knobby rootstock (think fresh ginger root).

His mom also sent instructions on how to hybridize iris by cross pollinating, transferring pollen from one iris to another enabling fertilization to occur. The resulting seeds produce plants that are a mix of the two parents.

"It's always fascinating to see the results. You can never predict what you'll get. That's what makes it fascinating to me," Richardson said.

Before long, Richardson had filled the flower beds at the apartment with his hybrids. He expanded his garden, planting iris in nearby empty plots.

That worked for a while but in 1972 Richardson decided to find himself and his beloved blooms a permanent home. He settled on a double lot at the corner of Pine Street and Mahan Avenue, one lot for a house, one for his irises.

The iris moved in before he did.

"I wanted to get them moved and established before it got too cold," Richardson said.

But Mother Nature didn't cooperate. There was a lot of snow and ice that winter with a thaw between cold spells. The snow melt ran downhill, pooling in Richardson's iris garden, then froze before it could drain away.

"I lost a lot of my rhizomes," he said.

That just spurred him to produce more. Today his garden is home to about 400 named iris, which Richardson uses for breeding stock, and about 2,000 seedlings he's hybridized over the years.

At first Richardson considered himself a hobbyist. But a fellow hybridizer kept nagging him to market his plants to a commercial iris nursery.

"Finally he did it for me, and when my rhizomes were accepted, that gave me the bug," he said.

It takes years and lots of patience to produce just one new iris.

Each seed pod produces 40 to 50 seeds, but not all will germinate. The resulting seedlings grow in the garden for at least a year, sometimes more, before producing their first bloom.

"Out of 1,000 seedlings I may get 100 that are worth keeping. The rest go through the chipper for mulch," he said.

Those with possibilities grow for another two to three years before Richardson culls them again.

"Only a handful are worth introducing and even those go through more field trials before being accepted," Richardson said.

Richardson works with Rockytop Gardens, a mail order iris nursery in Eagleville, Tenn., owned by Phil Williams. The two confer, exchanging phone calls and photos before Richardson gives the go-ahead to pack up three or rhizomes of each promising hybrid for field trials at Rockytop Gardens.

"Phil has to be sure they'll grow somewhere besides my garden and produce consistent blooms before introducing them in his catalog," Richardson said.

"It's a long process which is why it costs $45 to $50 for rhizomes from a newly introduced iris," he said.

The price drops dramatically once people start growing a new introduction. Iris need to be dug up and the rhizomes divided about every three years. Each portion of the original rhizome will produce an exact copy of the parent plant.

"Pretty soon that new plant isn't so new anymore," Richardson said.

So why does he do it?

"Because for me, when my iris bloom, it's just like Christmas in May. I keep coming out to the garden, checking for new flowers and peeking into the just opening blooms. It's just like rattling the packages under the tree," he said.

* Loretto J. Hulse: 509-582-1513; lhulse@tricityherald.com.