Brand-new Iris reticulata in the Alpine House

Tuesday morning began with an in-depth tour of the Alpine department at the Botanics for our Managing Plant Collections course. The Alpine yard, which is off-limits to the public, is the closest you'll find to a secret garden at RBGE. One ducks through a small wooden door in a Clematis-draped wall and crosses the stone threshold to another world full of tiny treasures in rockwork beds, glasshouses, and cold frames. 

Early spring is the best time to visit the publicly accessible Alpine House, above, which delivers the most concentrated spot of bloom in the February garden. The color on a rare sunny day is so spirit-lifting that a visit should be prescribed by the NHS along with its recent Vitamin D recommendations

Some very special Iris are blooming in the Alpine house right now: very cool new cultivars by Canadian breeder Alan McMurtrie. I loved the mixed up browns and blues, and sea green on an Iris is mind-boggling. It's so neat to see colors one doesn't usually associate with Iris reticulata on these brand-new cultivars.

Later that night, at home, I opened my February RHS Garden magazine to find a great profile of Mr. McMurtie and profiles and photos of the very plants I'd just seen growing: 'Spot-On,' 'Sunshine,' 'Sea Breeze,' 'Eyecatcher' and several others. You can read the article on Mr. McMurtie's site here.

The display of cultivars, such as these Iris, is controversial in botanical gardens. Some argue that botanical gardens should exist to safeguard straight species, often with an eye toward educating the public about these plants' threatened habitats while at the same time performing ex situ conservation. However, a lot of dedication, time, and research goes into the science of plant breeding, and those stories are educationally valid as well. 

Regardless of which side of the species/cultivar debate is right, it is still a great feeling to be studying in a garden that has access to some of the newest and most interesting things happening in the plant world, and working relationships with breeders making scientific breakthroughs. If I weren't at the Botanics, I would have just had to enjoy those Iris through magazine photos. But to see them in person brings them to life.