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First Annual Abbeville Swamp Iris Seed Collection is Completed by LICI

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: licisaveirises@gmail.com



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: https://friendsofpalmetto.org/partnering-with-lici 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: https://friendsofpalmetto.org/join



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