Louisiana irises are being protected and conserved

Story By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald
Photo by Pauls Pastorek, The Greater New Orleans Iris Society

Preserving and protecting the native Louisiana U. nelsonii red iris has become an avocation of lawyer Paul Pastorek over the past decade.

A board member of the Greater New Orleans Iris Society, Pastorek, a graduate of De La Salle High School, Loyola University New Orleans and Loyola’s law school, said he’s always loved the outdoors and began appreciating native plants such as ferns and their role in the environment.

About 10 years ago, an orange-red iris (fulva) caught his eye, and its beauty grew into an iris preservation hobby.

“Red flowers in the wild are quite stark and quite pretty,” he said. “I used to drive to Baton Rouge quite a bit, and you’ll see Louisiana irises  – if you are paying attention – in a lot of places. I became interested in why they grow and where they grow, what colors there are, and I began to learn more about them.”

He learned of the five iris species native to Louisiana, varying in height and flower color. The Abbeville Red or the U. nelsonii iris, named after University of Louisiana at Lafayette professor Ike Nelson who determined, in the mid-1990s, it was a separate species from the other irises, was first discovered in the state in the 1930s in the swamps of Abbeville by W.B. MacMillan.

“It has a red flower. It’s very red,” Pastorek said. “Other species are purplish blue or orange-red or blue. But the only true red species is now called the iris nelsonii.”

It’s not found anywhere else in the world but in Abbeville swamp, he said.

“The Abbeville Red came on with a storm because people didn’t really know what it was. It looks so different.”

Not only is its color different, Pastorek said its other distinguishing characteristics include its drooping petals and straight-standing styles which encase the pollen and ovaries, making it difficult to pollinate.

When the U. nelsonii iris has been crossed with other Louisiana irises, it has produced different, brilliantly colored irises and contributed to hybridization of Louisiana irises, he said.

Easy plant to care for

Pastorek says he’s easily grown several varieties of irises in his backyard.

“They are very happy in your yard,” he said. “They tend to like a lot of water, but can grow without a lot of water, too. … You can’t over-water an iris.”

They can tolerate freezes and grow vigorously in winter from November through March. He said not to worry if the leaves turn yellow and fall in summer when dormant. They could be dry – since their natural habitat is the swamp. But by August and September, leaves will turn green. If the iris doesn’t bloom one year, he recommends thinning them in winter and applying a general-purpose fertilizer.

Society preservation efforts

To make sure native irises don’t disappear from their natural habitat, Pastorek said the society has begun a steward program where multiple copies of Louisiana irises are grown in different areas of the country. This way, diseases, hurricanes or salt water intrusion don’t completely wipe out the irises since they are preserved elsewhere and can be returned to Louisiana to grow again. The U. nelsonii species is on this steward list. Pastorek is a steward.

The society, over the past year, also is working with the state’s Wildlife and Fisheries office on iris conservation and education so irises don’t get randomly wiped out while municipalities reduce weeds.

It is also on board with Wildlife and Fisheries and other agencies and state iris societies for the Louisiana Iris Species Preservation Program, where “safe harbors” for irises are being located nationwide so they are not lost forever. The Joyce Wildlife Management Area (north of Lake Manchac) and Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, are examples of testing sites where irises are growing and admired.

“The challenge for the iris throughout Louisiana – they tend to grow in ditches and on the side of the road and also in swamps and other places like that,” he said. “They are very threatened by grass-cutting operations and more importantly, by herbiciding. … Herbiciding will tend to kill off the iris completely.”

In the past six months, the society and volunteers also completed a rescue operation of irises, removing them before they were going to be destroyed when a landowner was to develop a property.

“We removed a large number of irises from that location and put them in pots in City Park (where irises are being propagated) and other places like Joyce or Bayou Sauvage or other locations.”

He’s also been documenting by geocode photographs the location of irises to educate municipalities and parishes on mowing instead of using herbicides to control weeds.

Pastorek, a former state superintendent of education after Hurricane Katrina from 2007-11, helped restore the public school system and is an education consultant who helps education systems nationwide understand the success in New Orleans and how they can replicate it in their area. He also is acting chief operating officer, on the Loyola University senior leadership team, to help the university improve its finances.

He believes in the importance of preserving the uniqueness of Louisiana – whether it be its beauty, its indigenous native plants and animals or other things. He says they provide many different things that we know or can see, but there are other reasons.

“My hope is that as we learn more about these rare plants, we may find that there are other valuable purposes in them other than beauty and appreciation,” he said. “When you have native or indigenous plants that do their best in the wild, I think it’s important to maintain a balance between human use of our planet and the native uses of our planet. … When you lose a species (such as Abbeville Red), you lose the ability to create beauty and joy in people’s lives. … I’d rather hang on to it and learn more about it then let it go. That’s why I keep a focus on conservation.”

The nonprofit Greater Louisiana Iris Society, almost 20 years old, can be reached at http://www.louisianairisgnois.com.  It is hosting the 2020 Society for Louisiana Irises convention in New Orleans in early April.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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