Rainbow On The Hill

History blooms each spring at Montclair’s Presby Memorial Iris Gardens.

Presby Memorial Iris Gardens in Montclair.
Photo by Laura Moss.

For most of the year, the 30 planting beds at Presby Memorial Iris Gardens lay dormant at the base of a gentle hill in Upper Montclair. But for about four to six weeks every spring, the irises bloom in an awesome explosion of color.

The Presby Gardens are a world-famous yet well-kept secret. About 7,500 to 10,000 visitors flock each spring to this treasure, which is free ($5 suggested donation) and open to the public. At peak season, people can wander among the 75,000 blooms, each marked with its name and origin. Many of the historic irises are more than 100 years old; some trace their heritage back as far as the sixteenth century.

Presby claims the largest and most diverse collection of irises in the world, with 3,000 different registered varieties. “There are other beautiful iris gardens, and we love and feel kinship with them all,” says Fran Pelzman Liscio, president of the board of trustees. “But this one truly is unique in appearance and layout of the beds.”

Founded by the township in 1927, Presby has been in financial distress lately. Operating expenses have increased, while its endowment has decreased with the declining financial markets. Members of the Citizens Committee of the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens hope to avert a potential crisis with their planned sale of the site’s 2.5 acres and the adjoining Walther House to Essex County for $1.1 million. The gardens will remain open to the public, and the infusion of cash will beef up the Presby endowment.

It sounds like an over-the-rainbow solution for Presby, which was designed by John Wister, then president of the American Iris Society, to imitate a rainbow’s arc over the site. So striking is the spectrum of colors in the garden, the apt rainbow metaphor is ever present. Liscio, who jokingly refers to herself as the “Presbydent,” describes Presby as “a rainbow of magnificent colors, radiant in the sun, luminous and diaphanous against the blue sky.”

Wister donated the bulk of Presby’s original 99 historical irises—cultivars that had been labeled for posterity—and these blooms have been propagated over time by dividing the rhizomes (the thick underground horizontal stem), resulting in plants identical to the originals. Bed number 5 contains these heirloom historic irises.

A healthy iris will produce blooms indefinitely, allowing for remarkable examples to be passed down for centuries—and giving the gardens’ organizers grounds for calling Presby a “living museum.” New irises are always being created, and the world’s top hybridizers donate their latest hybrids to Presby every year.

According to a Presby brochure, to create a new iris, hybridizers imitate an insect’s pollinating journey into the plant for nectar and artificially fertilize one plant with another. It takes two to three years for the first bloom to emerge.

Old or new, each iris is tagged and entered into a database that includes the flower’s name, year of registration, the hybridizer, lineage, and official description from the registers issued each year by the American Iris Society.

Bloom season has tended to run from mid-May to mid-June, but in recent years, following research on proper soil composition for Presby’s bearded irises, many blooms now open by late April.

Visitors are welcomed to Presby by volunteers who provide brochures and maps of the beds. Painters and photographers favor the soft light of early morning or the pink glow of spring dusk, but this reporter has happily romped at Presby with her children in the sparkle of the midday sun. The grounds are also home to towering Miscanthus grass, aromatic Hungarian lilac bushes, gorgeous yellow heirloom roses, double-flowered wisteria vines, and more.

The garden, listed in the State and National Register of Historic Sites, was named in memory of Frank H. Presby, a prominent citizen of Montclair who died in 1924. According to garden director and resident expert Linda Sercus, Presby was a founding member of the American Iris Society and an “early environmentalist” who pushed Montclair to plant street trees. “He felt that a community should provide more than streets and sewers to its residents,” Sercus says.

Irises, named for the Greek goddess of rainbows, boast the broadest color range of any flower and are native to North America, as well as parts of Europe and Asia. “At one time, this garden had close to 200 differing species irises [plants culled from their native habitats around the world], drawing international visitors, particularly those homesick for flowers that grew in their homeland,” says Sercus, who explains that the loss of the original collection likely occurred as some of the growing procedures fell by the wayside in earlier years. “The Presby is working on replacing this diverse collection of irises from every country on the planet where they still exist.”

Sercus’s passion for irises began at home. “The tall, bearded iris is likely the most beloved of all garden flowers, as it was always in our mother’s and our grandmother’s gardens. Equally important, this flower was always divided and passed along to friends and family and is considered to be a flower for the common man. It is hardy, propagates itself readily, and is drought resistant.”

Hardy, indeed. Sercus jokes about a particularly robust variety called Indian Chief. “You can stomp it, run over it with a truck, throw it on the sidewalk, and it will still grow! It is fabulous.” Presby’s Indian Chief from 1929 is a classic two-toned iris, with amaranth purple falls (the three downward-facing petals) and pansy purple standards (the three petals that stick up), with bits of coppery brown and yellow beards (the fuzzy part of the falls). It grows in bed 25.

But even the strongest flowers can only withstand so much. In 2005, teenagers uprooted and scattered some 171 plants, separating them from their identifying nameplates. “Fortunately, the vandalism seemed to be a one-time event,” reports Liscio. “The individuals made restitution of both time and money, and we are glad that now things have been fine.”

While the iris might be a flower for the common man, many Presby specimens are quite uncommon. Each year, the American Iris Society awards a Dykes Medal to the finest iris of the year, paying tribute to the hybridizer. The Presby Gardens reserves bed 19 for its 80 Dykes Medal winners.

Historically, irises have played an important part in people’s lives. “In medieval times during the Crusades, the Persian soldiers marked the graves of their dead by planting irises,” says Sercus. “The iris rhizome has also been recorded as being used medicinally and for cosmetics.”

Even today, these gorgeous flowers can have symbolic importance. “There are irises classified as rebloomers—bearded irises that bloom again in the fall,” says Sercus. “After the tragic events of 9/11, the board of trustees contacted Joan Roberts of Pennsylvania, one of the foremost breeders of rebloomers, to commission the creation of three irises for the Presby Garden to remember friends and family from Montclair that were lost that day.” The three can be seen in bed 20.

While Mother Nature takes care of much of the work, the garden has considerable expenses, including salaries for three full-time and three part-time employees who work with volunteers to keep Presby flourishing. According to Liscio, the budget runs about $150,000-$200,000 per year.

Although the sale to Essex County will help relieve the endowment, it will only cover 25 percent of expected operating expenses. Support from individual donors remains important. The garden has four levels of naming opportunity that include commemorating loved ones with plaques, benches, and trees. For $25,000, you can have a new iris hybridized in your name or the name of a loved one.

The Bloom Room gift shop, located in the adjacent Walther House, offers vases, garden ornaments, children’s garden tools, garden gloves, potted irises, books on planting and maintaining irises, and more. A bag of unidentified iris rhizomes from the season’s renovations can be purchased for a donation of $20, and identified varieties are also for sale.

Smoking is not allowed at the gardens because the tobacco virus can harm the flowers. Food is also prohibited, but picnickers can spread their blankets on the hillside overlooking the gardens. You can spend hours strolling the grassy aisles between beds, but visitors are barred from stepping into the beds. (It would be sort of like stepping on a painting.) Children must be accompanied by an adult and pets must be leashed.

Presby is located at 474 Upper Mountain Avenue, on the edge of Mountainside Park in Montclair. The gardens are officially open from 10 am to 8 pm daily. For more information, visit presbyirisgardens.org or call 973-783-5974.

Patience Moore is a Montclair-based freelance writer.

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