A short history and what we hope to accomplish
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: https://vimeo.com/434409414?1&ref=fb-share&fbclid=IwAR1JvMbZG15MmUW4Bb857dTvB9u7vad9AODUoLmq_OMqEbI1ZIEfST7Y2GE
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: https://youtu.be/qmmmANSCJSI