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October 30, 2023 Abbeville, La.

On October 28, 2023, Gary Salathe, with the Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative (LICI), and Donald Sagrera, Executive Director of the Teche-Vermilion Fresh Water District, each gave a presentation during an October 17th board of directors meeting of the Chenier Plain Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority (CPCRPA) in Abbeville, La. The Commission's regular board meeting location is in Lake Charles, La., but each year, they do one meeting in Abbeville, La., which is on the far eastern side of their territory. Sagarera and Salathe were invited by one of the local board members of CPCRPA to speak at the meeting.

The Chenier Plain Authority’s territory includes the Parishes of Calcasieu, Cameron, & Vermilion.

The CPCRPA is a political subdivision of the State of Louisiana and, through its board of commissioners, is organized with the primary mission to establish, construct, operate, or maintain flood control works as they relate to hurricane protection, tidewater flooding, saltwater intrusion, and conservation, and a secondary duty to establish flood control, adequate drainage relating to tidal or riverine flooding, and water resources development including but not limited to construction of reservoirs, diversion canals, gravity and pump drainage systems, erosion control measures, and marsh management, and is authorized to enter into contracts and agreements.

Photo: The Tech-Vermilion Fresh Water District's pumping station at the Atchafalaya River is shown pumping water into the Bayou Teche watershed earlier this year when only three of the five pumps were needed to maintain water levels in the watershed.

Donal Sagrera’s presentation was about the historic saltwater intrusion currently underway in the Vermilion River and what the Teche-Vermilion Fresh Water District is doing to try to push it back toward the Gulf of Mexico. He described the systems of pumps they use to force fresh water from the Atchafalaya River into the Bayou Teche watershed and how canals, locks, and other water control structures that they operated divert some of that water into the Vermilion River watershed for use by the towns and farms along the river. In addition, during the last two years, and especially this year, they are increasingly pumping fresh water into the system to hold back saltwater from the Gulf of Mexico that is trying to work its way up the Vermilion River due to an extended drought which is reducing the freshwater flow in the river.

Gary Salathe’s presentation was about the discovery of the I. nelsonii Louisiana irises (Abbeville Red Iris) in a privately owned swamp near Abbeville, La. in the late 1930’s and how it was named a distinct Louisiana species in 1966.

Salathe recounted how, on October 18th, 2011, the Friends of Palmetto Island, Inc. nonprofit joined Palmetto Island State Park, Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries, along with some of the Office of State Park’s staff to plant 100 rhizomes of native Abbeville Red iris within the park so that the public could see and learn about these irises as they are blooming. Establishing the Abbeville Red iris planting in the park was a cooperative effort through a partnership between the Louisiana Office of State Parks and the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries. The Wildlife and Fisheries provided the funding, and the Office of State Parks provided the location. The Friends of Palmetto Island State Park purchased the irises and helped plant many of them.

Photo: Members of the Friends of Palmetto Island State Park and the Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative are shown April 5h, 2023, at the boardwalk in the park as they announce the partnership of the two groups to restore the Abbeville Red Louisiana iris planting there.

The Friends group has maintained the iris planting site at the park's boardwalk over the years as volunteers were available. Salathe explained that the Friends group had difficulty starting back up and maintaining the irises after COVID-19 stopped all volunteer work for two years, so they invited LICI to take over the effort. LICI received a permit to manage the iris planting at the park and increase the number of irises, and the Friends group has now partnered in the effort by funding it.

Photo: This slide from Salathe's presentation shows the proximity of Palmetto Island State Park and the Turkey Island Swamp ( also known as the Abbeville Swamp) to Vermilion Bay on the northern edge of the Gulf of Mexico.

The main point of Sagarera's presentation was not just to educate those present on the purpose and efforts of the Teche-Vermilion Fresh Water District but also to warn them that even though they have been operating their pumps full-out 24 hours per day since June, they have not been able to keep saltwater from moving up the Vermilion River since August.

Graphic: The room fell silent when the full impact of this slide was shown as the last slide of Donald Sagrera's presentation to the Chenier Plain Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority. It shows the historic levels of salt water that were in the Vermilion River at their different testing sites in October 2023 as compared to the same month over the last six years.

Native Louisiana iris species in coastal swamps and marshes can survive up to 10 parts per thousand of salt. However, their growth is impacted if they are subject to long periods of this level of salt. They can tolerate pulses up to 22 parts per thousand for brief periods during a hurricane storm surge. (Cypress trees match iris' levels for intolerance to salt.) The reading from the river's water tests at Palmetto Island State Park on Sagarera's slide was 17 parts per thousand.

Photo: Portions of the Abbeville Swamp are shown along Young's Canal. These areas of the swamp are 24” – 36” above the tidal impacts from the Vermilion River during dry periods.

In a discussion about Sagarera's slide once his presentation ended, Salathe said that, fortunately, the I. nelsonii irises growing in the Palmetto Island State Park's iris restoration project are about 12" to 18" above a very high tide, so they haven't been affected yet. He said the same is true for some of the Abbeville Swamp areas located just upriver from the park. However, much of the Abbeville Swamp is at the river water's height and is influenced by the tide during dry periods.

The main point of Salathe’s presentation was that the original swamp, where the irises can still be found, and the boardwalk swamp in the state park, where the irises from the 2011 planting are still growing, are both threatened by the saltwater intrusion from the Vermilion River and from hurricane storm surges and how these threats to this extremely rare native plant may be able to be used to acquire funding for projects to protect both sites. Just as many other rare plants and animals have been used nationally to justify huge outlays in funds to protect them and their habitat, the same could be done with the I. nelsonii iris.

The meeting was attended by people from the community and leaders in other coastal and parish boards, governmental agencies, and civic organizations. "We appreciated the opportunity to help make the board members of the Chenier Plain Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority and others in attendance at the meeting aware of this special rare native iris and the threats to its habitat," Salathe said afterward.

Sagarera and Salathe were contacted by a member of the CPCRPA staff the next day, saying that the board members were very interested in both presentations and asked if they would each email their presentations to them for future use. LICI also did a Facebook posting of Gary's presentation, which can be found here.

A Facebook video by Donal Sagarera about their work to pump fresh water into the watershed this fall can be found here.


September 12, 2023 Abbeville, La.

The Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative (LICI) has a Louisiana iris restoration project underway with their partners, the Friends of the Palmetto Island State Park, in the boardwalk swamp at Palmetto Island State Park near Abbeville, La. Part of the 2023 plan for the long-term project is to plant 600 I. nelsonii species of the Louisiana iris in the boardwalk swamp this fall. (The I. nelsonii irises is known locally as the Abbeville Red iris.) One critical job that needed to be accomplished was to remove the Chinese Tallow invasive tree species from the boardwalk swamp where the irises would be planted.

This August 2023 photo was taken from the Palmetto Island State Park boardwalk of the swamp where the irises will be planted this fall. All of the trees that are 30' tall or

smaller seen in the photo are the invasive Chinese Tallow tree.

The Chinese tallow is a drought-tolerant tree native to China and Japan. It was first introduced in South Carolina during the 1700s as an ornamental tree and then for making soap from seed oils. It was planted from eastern North Carolina southward to Florida. From Florida, it spread westerly through Louisiana and Arkansas into Texas.

Photo: Chinese tallow trees can be identified by broad, waxy-green leaves, often with an extended tip or “tail.” New growth briefly appears reddish.

In the early 1900's, it was used as an ornamental tree in Louisiana because most of Louisiana's native trees do not produce fall-colored leaves. The Chinese tallow tree does.

Photo: The Chinese tallow tree can be easily spotted in Louisiana forests when its leaves change color in late fall. Once this happens, the green color starts to fade from the leaves, and then reds, oranges, and yellows become visible. The leaves from most of Louisiana's

native hardwood trees turn brown in color.

The south/central part of Louisiana, where the Palmetto Island State Park is located, is part of Louisiana's Acadiana region, also known as cajun country. The Chinese Tallow tree is known as the Chicken tree in the region.

The Chicken trees needed to be removed from the park's boardwalk swamp before the two iris plantings planned for later this year. This was because the Chicken trees would compete with the irises, just as they were competing with the native Bald Cypress in the boardwalk swamp for moisture and nutrients in the soil. Also, trying to remove the Chicken trees after the irises were planted would risk volunteers trampling the irises. LICI and the park manager decided to set September 9th as the day to remove the Chicken trees.

Photo: Gary Salathe, founder and president of the Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative (LICI), is shown giving the opening remarks at the Chicken Tree Removal event in Palmetto Island State Park. He told the history of the Abbeville Red iris and its discovery. He also spoke about why the display of these irises at the park's boardwalk is so important to so many people, literally from around the world, as a place to see this rare species of Louisiana iris when they bloom. Photo by Henry Cancienne.

The September 9th event was co-hosted by Palmetto Island State Park and the Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative (LICI), with the Friends of Palmetto Island State Park, Inc. sponsoring the event by supplying snacks, drinks, and sandwiches. In the days leading up to September 9th, it became a community-wide event with volunteers signing up from a Scout Troop in Lafayette, Abbeville Rotary Club, Abbeville Garden Club, Vermilion ARCH 4-H club - including some of the parents, Friends of Palmetto Island State Park, Inc., volunteers from people staying at the park, and LICI's volunteers. Approximately 50 volunteers showed up for the event.

The swamp was dry due to the extreme drought the area has been experiencing, which made it easier for the volunteers to get around to do the work.

Photo: Volunteers begin work at the Palmetto Island State Park boardwalk swamp at the September 9th Chicken tree removal event. Photo by Henry Cancienne.

The park manager, Andrea Jones, was very supportive of the effort. She found many of the volunteers, allowed her staff to help deliver, set up, and take down everything needed for the event at the boardwalk base station, and allowed the group to use the nearby meeting room building and its porch.

Photo: Two volunteers are shown with loopers and the flagging that was used to mark each Chicken Tree.

Small red flags were set next to each Chicken tree so the volunteers would not need to determine which trees in the swamp needed to be cut down. Then, volunteers with either tree limb loopers or a chainsaw would cut the trees down. The cut trees were hauled to the swamp's edge and left to rot among the palmettos. A select few volunteers would then squirt each tree stump with a herbicide to kill the roots. They would collect each red flag as they were finished. Most trees ranged in size from twenty feet tall or less with a 1" to 1 1/2" diameter trunk.

Photo: Stewart Broussard, President of the Friends of the Palmetto Island State Park, Inc. , is seen working with the other volunteers to clear out Chicken trees during the event.

As a way to add a festive feeling to the event, a local aspiring singer/songwriter Brody Lemaire, along with his singer and percussionist sister, Zoey Lemaire, offered to donate their time to come out and play for the other volunteers as they worked. "Their playing and singing were a wonderful background for the groups working out in the swamp," Gary Salathe, president of the Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative, said afterward.

Photo: Volunteers at work removing Chicken trees during the September 9th event.

At the end of the event, Salathe said, "I have no idea how many Chicken trees were pulled up or cut down, but it was a lot! When the Abbeville Red irises we will be planting this winter bloom throughout the swamp at the boardwalk next spring, everyone will have a clear view of the show, thanks to the work of the volunteers today."

The final "Goodbye" group photo of most volunteers and park staff participating in the Chinese Tallow tree removal volunteer event at Palmetto Island State Park boardwalk swamp on September 9, 2023. Photo by Henry Cancienne.


July 16, 2023 Abbeville, La.

The Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative (LICI) has a Louisiana iris restoration project underway with their partners, the Friends of the Palmetto Island State Park, at the boardwalk in Palmetto Island State Park near Abbeville, La. One of the project's goals is to increase the number of I. nelsonii species of the Louisiana iris growing in the swamp at the boardwalk for the public to see them bloom and learn about this threatened native iris species. (The common name for the iris is the Abbeville Red iris.) Another goal is that at some point in the future after the blooming irises are verified as I. nelsonii irises, they could be thinned out to be returned to the nearby Abbeville Swamp. Since this swamp is the only place in the world where this Louisiana iris grows naturally, any I. nelsonii iris plant originated from there or has parentage from an iris collected from the swamp in the past.

Photo: (Left to right) Kent Benton, Forest Benton, and Gary Salathe are seen in a clump of I. nelsonii irises on April 5th in the Abbeville Swamp. Photo by Henry Cancienne.

A small group of LICI volunteers was invited by one of the landowners of the Abbeville Swamp to visit it during the iris bloom in early April 2023. Although the group was excited by the irises they found, they were disappointed to find huge areas of the swamp where no irises were growing. The exact reason is unknown, but it is known that the irises in this swamp have been aggressively removed by iris collectors since their discovery in the late 1930s, up until the late 1990s, sometimes without the landowners' permission.

In June of 2023, Louisiana iris enthusiast, iris grower, and LICI volunteer Kent Benton donated hundreds of I. nelsonii iris seedlings for the Palmetto Island State Park iris restoration project. They are currently growing at LICI's New Orleans iris holding area. These came from seeds at his nursery that resulted from his using the Captured Breading Process utilizing I. nelsonii iris pollen he collected at the Palmetto Island State Park boardwalk in 2021 with the permission of the park manager. He pollinated I. nelsonii irises that he had gotten from an iris collector many years ago.

Benton's donated irises will be planted at the park’s boardwalk this fall, but many will not be mature enough to bloom next spring. Efforts are underway to solicit donations of I. nelsonii irises from iris collectors to increase the number of blooming irises at the boardwalk next spring.

Photo: LICI's volunteer, Kent Benton, is seen collecting pollen from a few of the I. nelsonii irises blooming at the Palmetto Island State Park on March 23, 2023, during a visit to the park. He received permission from the then-manager of the park to collect pollen to use for producing more I. nelsonii irises to be planted at the boardwalk in 2024.

Benton collected more pollen from the irises at the park's boardwalk during the iris bloom in April 2023, but a late frost destroyed many of the flowers at his nursery soon after they were pollinated. The seeds to be created and grown out were to be planted at the boardwalk in the fall of 2024 in the hope that they would all bloom in April 2025.

LICI then proposed collecting seed pods from the actual I. nelsoniii irises growing in the Abbeville Swamp when they ripen in July to stay on track with having more irises to plant in the fall of 2024 at the park's boardwalk. The group's thinking is that almost all of these seeds would be wasted if they stayed in the swamp since the percentage of Louisiana iris seeds germinating, growing, and surviving into mature plants in the wild is extremely low.

The plan is for the irises from these collected seeds to grow in their natural environment in the Palmetto Island State Park boardwalk swamp, where the public can enjoy them while they bloom. But more importantly, after they are confirmed to be true I. nelsonii irises, they will be moved back into the Abbeville Swamp into areas where no irises are growing. "We can return to the Abbeville Swamp a much higher percentage of the seeds we collect as mature plants in 1 1/2 years compared to hoping the seeds germinate on their own in the swamp," LICI's Gary Salathe said when he announced the plan. Salathe heads up the project for LICI.

The photo on the left shows the 36" tall I. nelsonii irises blooming in one of the more remote areas the LICI volunteers found irises on their April tour of the Abbeville Swamp. The same area is shown on the right in July after 4 1/2 months of weed and swamp plant growth. The dormant irises and their ripe seed pods were covered by 48" tall weeds and brush.

After receiving the landowner's permission, LICI organized an iris seed pod collection expedition to the Abbeville Swamp on July 12, 2023. Unfortunately, it coincided with an extreme heat wave hitting the area. Over sixty seed pods were collected after four hours of tiring and dirty work in the scorching heat that involved whacking through brush and weeds to get to the irises and their seed pods.

Photo: Some seed pods collected on July 12th from the I. nelsonii irises in the Abbeville Swamp are shown.

The next day, on Thursday morning, July 13, 2023, during a presentation on germinating iris seeds given by Salathe to members of the Acadiana Native Plant Project, some seed pods were opened, and the seeds were planted into one-gallon pots. He taught the attendees Kent Benton's method of germinating seeds. The 455 seeds will be watched over and germinated by the group at their native plant nursery in Arnaudville, La.

Photo: Members of the Acadiana Native Plant Project are seen on July 13th planting seeds after opening the seed pods collected the day before at the Abbeville Swamp.

Later that same day, near Livingston, La., Benton was given some seed pods to germinate the seeds. He reported that he had planted 465 seeds from the seed pods into pots the next day.

Photo: Kent Benton is seen on July 14th after planting the seeds he was given from the Abbeville Swamp into containers.

On Friday, July 14th, the rest of the seed pods were opened, and 474 seeds were planted into one-gallon pots by staff and interns of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP) nursery in Thibodaux, La. They will germinate the seeds as a joint project with Nicholls Farm. The farm is managed by the head of the Biology Department of Nicholls State University, Dr. Quenton Fontenot, who is also LICI's contact with the university.

Photo: The Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP) nursery at Nicholls University in Thibodaux, La.

The groups agreed to help germinate the seeds when LICI determined that the irrigation system used at its iris-holding area for their mature irises would put too much water onto them.

"We are very excited that maybe a thousand or more of the very rare I. nelsonii irises will come from the 1,400 seeds planted into pots this week. We are very grateful for our friends and partners in this seed-germination project; Acadiana Native Plant Project, Kent Benton, and the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program in conjunction with Nicholls State University, " Salathe says.

Photo: Tammy, an intern with BTNEP, is seen just before she covers with soil the 474 iris seeds she helped to plant into pots at the BTNEP nursery.

All seedlings from the seeds will be returned to LICI in about five months to grow out at the group's iris-holding area in New Orleans. They will be ready to plant at the Palmetto Island State Park boardwalk in the fall of 2024.

"We hope that with more time available to plan our visit back to the Abbeville Swamp during next spring’s bloom, and with the permission of the landowner, of course, we may be able to significantly increase the number of seeds that we can collect next summer to farm out for germinating to boost the number of seedlings available for growing out even further, " Salathe says.

The hoped-for outcome of all of this work by all of the groups that are part of this project is to have a couple of thousand I. nelsonii irises blooming at the Palmetto Island State Park’s boardwalk by the spring of 2025.

A group of civic leaders in New Iberia, La., have begun organizing the inaugural Bayou Teche Native Louisiana Iris Festival to be held March 28th through the 30th in 2025. The festival will be based in New Iberia, but the last day of activities will take place in Palmetto Island State Park at the boardwalk to celebrate the restoration of the I. nelsonii planting there. The educational type festival will also have talks open to the public about this rare iris and the need to preserve its native habitat.

Photo: Alison Miller is seen during her meeting with LICI at the Abbeville Cultural & Historical Museum & Art Gallery on Wednesday, July 12, 2023 in Abbeville, La.

Although awareness of the Abbeville Red irises at the Palmetto Island State Park will be elevated by the iris festival in 2025, the Vermilion Parish Tourist Commission has promoted the iris bloom at the park each spring. During a July meeting with the Executive Director of the Tourist Commission, Alison Miller, LICI committed to helping the Tourist Commission get the word out about the iris restoration project at the park and to increase awareness of the Abbeville Red irises while they bloom next spring. She also said they would help market the inaugural Bayou Teche Native Louisiana Iris Festival. She said they regularly get people from all over the country come into the visitor's center and ask about the Abbeville red irises, especially during the iris bloom each spring.

Photo: I. nelsonii irises blooming at the Palmetto Island State Park boardwalk on April 5, 2023.

Starting next spring, and each year after, as all of the I. nelsonii irises are blooming at the Palmetto Island State Park's boardwalk, iris experts will be asked to walk through the swamp to verify that each iris is, in fact, a pure I. nelsonii iris. After the 2025 iris festival, the process will begin of returning many of the irises back to the Abbeville Swamp to be replaced at the boardwalk with a new crop of iris seedlings created using the prior year's seeds collected from the Abbeville Swamp. "We hope the boardwalk planting at the park will become a clearing house for irises grown from seeds collected from the Abbeville Swamp to be confirmed while they bloom so they can head back into the swamp as full-size plants," Salathe sums up.

If you would like to volunteer to help LICI and the Friends of Palmetto State Park plant the irises this fall at the park's boardwalk, please send your contact information to:

The Friends of Palmetto Island State Park has created a new page on their website. The page not only has links to Facebook postings and articles about their partnership with LICI and what the goals are for the project, but it also has a donate button for a fund they have set up so everyone can help to maintain, enhance and expand, the Abbeville Red iris exhibit at the boardwalk by donating. Here's a link to the page: The new donate button is at the bottom of the page.

If you would like to join the Friends of the Palmetto Island State Park to become a member and get involved in all of the things they do to help support the park, you can do so here:

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