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Updated: Feb 15

October 27, 2020 Braithwaite, LA

The Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative (LICI) would like to welcome a new location into our growing list of properties where we are doing projects to manage, preserve or increase the number of native species Louisiana irises. In this new location we will be doing all three over the coming months. The location is the Louisiana St. Bernard State Park, which is located in Braithwaite, LA just southeast of New Orleans.

The volunteers worked Tuesday, October 27, 2020 at the park digging up threatened irises to take to the LICI iris holding area to strengthen them up for replanting back into the park in a couple of months, planted 200 new I. giganticaerulea Louisiana species irises to add to an existing clump of irises and cleared brush from the pond shoreline where the irises were planted.

A big "Thank You!" goes out to park manager, Ginger Theriot, for taking the time away from her hurricane Zeta preparations to meet with LICI representatives to review our proposed projects that morning. "She not only met with us, she approved all of the projects on the spot, so we decided since we had some volunteers with us to go ahead and get started!", LICI's Gary Salathe said.

"Thanks!" also goes out to the Executive Director of Common Ground Relief, Charlotte Clark, for not only supplying some volunteers for the project, but also getting down in the muck helping out herself.

Photo: A group effort.

The activity was organized by the Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative as the first of what will be many more for this new long-term project at St. Bernard State Park.

A large outdoor pavilion within the picnic area is just a 20 yards from the linear pond where the irises were planted.

The iris planting was done in the park's picnic area.

Photo: Volunteers begin work by digging up a clump of existing irises.

Volunteers begin work by digging up a clump of irises. that a board of directors member of LICI discovered two years ago in a heavily wooded area of the park near the picnic area's parking lot. Between the heavy shade from the trees, as well as competing with the tree roots for moisture during the summer, the clump of irises has been slowly shrinking each year. Its doubtful it would have lasted more than another year or so in this location.

The plan was to dig up these irises and plant them into containers at the LICI iris holding area to strengthen them up over the next two or three months. They will then be brought back to the park and planted in a better location.

Photo: The second existing clump of I. giganticaerulea species Louisiana irises.

Another existing clump of I. giganticaerulea species of the Louisiana iris was also found two years ago growing along a linear pond that runs through the center of the park's picnic area. It is doing much better because of being along the water's edge and there being much less trees nearby to shade them during the summer. The trees lose their leaves during the winter, which is the growing season for the irises. The day's work included adding more I. giganticaerulea irises to this existing clump and then clear out the underbrush from along the pond bank so that the irises will be in full view when they bloom next spring.

Photo: The volunteers working planting irises along the linear pond.

About 200 new I. giganticaerulea irises were added to the pond bank near the existing clump of irises.

Photo: A section of the completed project at day's end.

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Updated: Feb 8

October 21, 2020 New Orleans, La.

The Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative got the first irises in the ground for the 2020-2021 fall/winter planting season on Tuesday, October 21, 2020. Thanks to volunteers from Common Ground Relief being available, the LICI was able to organize this planting of 300 I. giganticaerulea species Louisiana irises at the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge in New Orleans east. The irises were planted near the first viewing platform on the refuge boardwalk.

These are the first irises of the season that have been taken out of the 6,000 growing at the LICI iris holding area in New Orleans. The irises were rescued from properties this summer where they were threatened with destruction from development.

Photo: A volunteer digs up the first iris from the 6,000 growing at the LICI iris holding area on the morning of the 21st. The iris is to be used for the project that day.

The event used only seven volunteers as a test before larger groups of volunteers are invited to participate in the future. It went well.

Photo: The volunteers begin work planting the irises at the refuge.

The ground conditions were great for planting the irises in areas that are usually under 6" - 8" of water. The group was able to get into these areas and plant while the water was down from our recent dry spell.

Photo: This was the first opportunity that Gary Salathe, board of directors member of the Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative, and Refuge Manager, Shelley Stiaes, had a chance to meet the new Executive Director of Common Ground Relief, Charlotte Clark.

(Left to right): LICI board of directors member, Britt Aliperti, Charlotte Clark, Gary Salathe and Shelley Stiaes.

Photo: Some of the 300 irises planted during the workday.

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Updated: Feb 14

September 7, 2020 New Orleans, La.

Back in the early 1900’s Louisiana irises were so common in southeast Louisiana they were just thought of as weeds by the locals.  It was just a plant that clogged up their ditches. Their abundance was taken for granted.  But warnings began to appear in the following decades about how the draining and development of swamps threatened this native plant’s long-term survival. Caroline Dormon, Percy Viosca and Dr. John K. Small, each a botanist, naturalist and early environmentalist, gave the first warnings starting in the 1920’s as they began to publicize this native plant and its habitat. They saw the destruction first hand as they collected iris specimens from the swamp.  

Photo:  The two people in this photo are ignoring the blooming irises nearby because the irises were so common as to be unremarkable when the photo was taken. 

Back in the early 1900’s Louisiana irises were so common in southeast Louisiana they were just thought of as weeds by the locals.  It was just a plant that clogged up their ditches. Their abundance was taken for granted.  But warnings began to appear in the following decades about how the draining and development of swamps threatened this native plant’s long-term survival.Caroline Dormon, Percy Viosca and Dr. John K. Small, each a botanist, naturalist and early environmentalist, gave the first warnings starting in the 1920’s as they began to publicize this native plant and its habitat. They saw the destruction first hand as they collected iris specimens from the swamp.   

Photo: Estimated land lost (in blue) from Louisiana coastal wetlands since the 1800's.

The plight of coastal areas of Louisiana from natural subsidence and erosion which has been accelerated by man-made activities has been well publicized.  The irises have retreated back into the deepest reaches of the freshwater swamps as salt water has advanced inland.  Combined with the increased use of herbicides by governmental agencies for roadside maintenance, it has become increasingly difficult for the people of Southeast Louisiana to experience first-hand wild irises in bloom each spring. 

The result is that a whole generation in Southeast Louisiana has never seen the springtime bloom of wild irises.  It's difficult to motivate people into helping do something about this loss if they have never seen a wild iris blooming in its natural habitat.  As they say; "Out of sight, out of mind."

Photo:  Many of the parishes in Southeast Louisiana now rely on spraying roadside ditches with an herbicide to control weeds.  Unfortunately, many of these ditches once held huge numbers of native irises which put the annual iris bloom on full display to the public.

What has been less publicized is that Louisiana with the federal government’s help is fighting back against the land loss and salt water intrusion.  A master plan has been created and is being put into effect to do large scale marsh restoration projects using state and federal funds and money from the B.P. oil spill penalties.  The Mississippi River, hemmed in by levees since the late 1800’s, is once again being opened up into the marshes through new control structures that will allow much needed fresh water and silt deposits to push back the salt water and rebuild land.  Although no one believes this will ever reclaim all of the land that has been lost, early results show that land loss is slowing down and new land is being created in isolated areas where the first of these Mississippi River diversions have been built.

Photo: This is just some of the marsh restoration projects and Mississippi River diversions that are in various stages of being put into place or receiving approvals.

The marsh restoration projects are creating opportunities to reintroduce native plants into marshes that previously held brackish or salt water and now have returned to being fresh water.

Non-profit organizations have sprung up to begin reforesting these areas with cypress trees, so we asked a simple question, “Why not include native Louisiana iris species in this effort?”

We also discovered that all but two of the numerous swamp boardwalks found in the area’s wildlife refuges, national and state parks and public nature preserves had no Louisiana irises growing next to them. We felt that a real opportunity existed to bring the native Louisiana irises back into the public’s consciousness by planting irises along these boardwalks where they will be permanently protected and be in view to the public as they bloom each year.  Once this is accomplished our thought is that demand will increase for irises to be used in commercial and governmental marsh restoration projects, furthering our long-term goals.

The Boy Scout Road Trail boardwalk in the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Big Branch National Wildlife Refuge is located in a marsh that decades ago changed from being a fresh water marsh into a brackish marsh and has now changed back into being a fresh water marsh.  Although there are thousands of irises growing on a trail less than 1/4 mile away, there were no irises growing along the boardwalk where a majority of the refuge visitors go to instead.

We then discovered that still to this day there were irises being destroyed because of properties being developed.

Photo: A parking lot expansion underway that threatens to bury the 2,000 Louisiana irises shown in the background.

We also found that there were many homeowners who had dug up wild irises years ago from nearby swamps and planted them in their ponds or around their homes and are happy to donate them now.

Photo: Iris giganticaerulea species Louisiana irises growing in the front yard of an individual that lives near a swamp. He dug up some wild irises a few years ago and planted them around his house.

We concluded that “rescuing” irises from being destroyed because of development and thinning out irises on homeowners’ properties offered us the possibility of a ready supply of plants to use in marsh restoration projects.

Our first step would be to plant these irises next to boardwalks that were being used by people to experience and learn about the swamp and marsh habitats.  It would allow them to see this unique native plant growing and blooming in its natural habitat, the first time for most of them. 

Since all of this involves hard, sweaty labor we set out to find younger volunteers that would help get the job done. We discovered that many young people want to help out in saving the environment and they felt that reintroducing irises back into the swamp as accomplishing this. We connected with local organizations that bring in college students from around the country to volunteer on marsh restoration projects and they included our iris restoration projects for their groups to work on.

Photo: Out-of-state college students working planting irises along a refuge boardwalk this past January as part of their five days of volunteerism trip to New Orleans.

With all of the pieces in place we spent the last two years developing the program through the Greater New Orleans Iris Society. In late 2018 to early 2019 we rescued and replanted 8,000 I. giganticaerulea irises. From October 2019 to January 2020 we rescued and replanted almost 13,000 more.

At many of the places where we planted the irises the managers and their staffs were being introduced to the Louisiana iris for the first time. Although irises may have been found somewhere on their properties, saving or managing the lowly iris was not on their priority list. However, they are now fully on board after two seasons of seeing the excitement the blooming irises created among visitors to their boardwalks.  The Louisiana iris has now moved up in importance.

In late April we launched the new non-profit Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative (LICI) to continue the program on a much larger scale.

Photo:  LICI volunteer rescuing I. giganticaerulea species Louisiana irises recently from a site that is to be developed.

Then COVID 19 hit. But we discovered two things: There were enough people in our area that had time on their hands and were itching to get out of the house and accomplish something because of the lock-downs that we could still get volunteers and they were also willing to do more events than what we would typically expect. Even though we were working in smaller groups because of the social distancing requirements we were able to do more events because the volunteers had the time to give. At one point about six weeks ago we actually did two volunteer events on two different days in one week for two weeks back-to-back. (Whew!)

Photo: LICI volunteers are shown setting up the iris holding area in July. We kept the number of volunteers for each event to ten people or less in keeping with social distancing protocols for fighting the COVID 19 virus.

We solicited and received donations from various organizations to set up an iris holding area to plant the irises we rescued into containers for them to strengthen and grow to get them ready for planting in the marsh this fall and winter.

And that’s where we stand, as of today. We are hopeful that the college student volunteers from around the country will begin to return next spring.

Irises from rescue events in June, July and August are now growing at our iris holding area.

We believe we have close to 6,000 I. giganticaerulea species Louisiana irises growing in containers at our iris holding area. We’re taking a little break and then will start up again in October visiting sites and getting the needed permits to prepare for planting them. The demand for these irises is so great that we believe we can get all of these irises planted by the end of November and dig up a whole second batch for planting in January if the irises and local volunteers are available.

Our volunteer events will need to be spaced out and likely done on weekends now that things are loosening up on the COVID 19 lock-downs and many people in our area are going back to work.  We had hopes of rescuing and replanting 20,000 irises this season, but it will all depend on whether or not the volunteers are available. No matter, our plan is to give it our best shot. 

Stay tuned for future postings as things develop!!

More information on the restoration of Louisiana's marshes and swamps can be found in this excellent webinar:

More detail about the formation on the Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative can be found in this Louisiana Master Naturalists of Greater New Orleans' webinar with LICI's Gary Salathe as the guest presenter:

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The Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative, Inc. is a Louisiana non-profit corporation that has been formed for the purpose of organizing Louisiana iris rescue and planting projects involving wild, native irises threatened with destruction.