Soon after the New Jersey native Stan Gray relocated to Savannah, Georgia, in 2005, he decided to show Lowcountry gardeners something they had never seen before. His parents raised him among tall bearded irises at their Gray’s Iris Garden in Montvale, New Jersey, a prize-winning private hobby-turned-public-garden they opened each spring.
In 2007, the retired career military officer transplanted more than three hundred iris varieties to the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens in Savannah—a fitting locale for experiments. (The garden is known for botanical trailblazers including the turn-of-the-century plant explorer David Fairchild, says business manager Anne Clayton.)
That first year, Gray seemed to have conquered the coastal climate where humidity and warm winters had long plagued iris enthusiasts. The blooms, planted in rainbow arches by color, performed beautifully.
But by August, the majority of the collection had rotted. Gray rebuilt the garden and tinkered for years afterward, but he never found the results he was looking for. “I’d been doing this all my life, just like my parents had been doing it all their lives, so I thought it would be pretty easy,” Gray says, laughing. “It was certainly a learning experience for me.”
Then Gray discovered the Louisiana iris, a group of five species that are native to the Mississippi River Delta region. Iris giganticaerulea, or giant blue, dot coastal marshes for miles each spring, and some Louisianas even bloom in elusive red. After a few phone calls in 2014, hundreds of rhizomes arrived in the back of a Jeep some eight hundred miles from where they grew in Mooringsport, Louisiana. Soon, Gray was one of a handful of national stewards charged with saving a flower that had nearly disappeared in the wild.
Charles Perilloux, who spearheads the Louisiana Iris Species Preservation Project to reintroduce the irises throughout the South, knows about the habitat loss firsthand: On his property in Baton Rouge, Iris fulva couldn’t survive severe flooding caused by development in the floodplain where they once flourished. Whereas Perilloux and the other stewards keep their Louisiana irises in pots, Gray’s collection grows in the ground, a boon for public education at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens.
In Savannah each spring, from the vantage point of a three-story observation tower overlooking a bamboo labyrinth, Gray’s library comes into view. In a wagon wheel shape at the center of what was once a tea garden, the five types of Louisiana irises on the verge of extinction occupy center stage. Irises grow in undulating river beds that were formerly drainage ditches and become a riot of color to rival Monet, complete with footbridges. Spuria alight on berms that ring the garden.
“It’s remarkable because some of these species have distinct native habitats,” Perilloux says. “Iris spuria is a native of Eurasia and into North Africa, places that are dry. The Louisianas are accustomed to a lot of rainfall. And Stan’s got ‘em right next to each other. It’s just wonderful to me what he’s done.”
Fifteen years after he first began, Gray has one of the country’s largest and most diverse iris collections, and a spring bloom that crests in waves. During the season from mid-April to May, he practices the Southern hospitality of his adopted home, sharing his knowledge with thousands of visitors just like his parents did.
Some years have been total duds, of course. In 2012, there was nothing. In 2020, the CGBG was on lockdown and Gray was the only person who got to see the irises on a special dispensation for rare plants. The 2022 showing remains to be seen, owing to an early March freeze after temperatures in the eighties.
But for avid gardeners, there’s something to the adage that hope springs eternal, Gray says.
On a path through the bamboo maze, his trial beds for tall bearded irises appear. Someday, he’s going to reveal the most resilient varieties, like Braggin’ Rights, which has survived fifteen years of Lowcountry weather—determined, season after season, to persevere.