Stormy Weather Iris Garden

One Lynchburg garden is preserving and sharing floral history.

“No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth,” avid gardener Thomas Jefferson wrote in an 1811 letter to painter and politician Charles Willson Peale. Missouri-native turned Lynchburg-local Shana Gammon agrees. She started planting tall bearded irises nearly 20 years ago in her home garden. But what began as a labor of love, turned into something more. 

“I love history and so preserving iris heritage with all the varieties interested me,” she says. What first attracted her to them, though, was their shape, scent, and that they’re not fussy. In 2021, her cozy and carefully-curated “Stormy Weather Iris Garden” was designated a Historic Iris Display Garden by the Historical Iris Preservation Society (HIPS)—one of only two in Virginia, the other one being Monticello/Tufton Farm in Charlottesville. And it’s no wonder: several specimens in Gammon’s garden have received the Dykes Award, the highest honor given by the American Iris Society to the best iris developed by an American hybridizer. 

Although irises introduced 30 years ago or more are considered “Historic Irises,” (which may seem more young than venerable) there are thousands of varieties and a focus on “latest and greatest” makes older irises pass out of commerce. Sometimes you’re lucky to find an older variant near an abandoned building or by the roadside, but if specimens aren’t preserved, they will be lost from the catalogs and annals of horticulture history. Of the over 200 varieties in her garden, “Moonlight” is the oldest, dating back to 1923.

However, the flowers curated for Gammon’s collection aren’t just historic, they are chosen with her family in mind. “A garden should be personal,” she says. Varieties included are: “Navy Blues” for her husband, a Navy veteran, “Goodnight Moon” for one of her daughters, and “Hindenburg” for her grandfather who witnessed the disaster. One of the first and now flagship iris is called “Before the Storm,” a deep purple, almost black flower that stands out against the more typical whites, lavenders, and yellows. 

“The community has been very responsive since they started giving tours.” Almost every day of their 2022 Open House (May 6-15) was booked solid with visitors vying to see and smell the expansive assortment. And in the third week of July, she divides the irises and sells rhizomes. Not only does this prevent the plant from unhealthy clumping, but it keeps the historic variety alive.

“Coming from Missouri,” Gammon says, “I was used to rural gardening and to farming, so city or house gardening was a new experience.” The soil was the first obstacle. Virginia earth is topsoil and then a whole lot of clay. She’s managed to establish three beds in the garden, though: one hugging the house, the main bed near the patio, and one nearer the edge of the property.

When asked if she’d venture into any other heirloom flora, Gammon said she tried roses, but just couldn’t make them thrive. And though her children haven’t caught the gardening bug, she remains hopeful that they’ll grow green thumbs someday. “We plan to continue expanding,” she says, “but I also like keeping it small, more of a boutique.”

Konstantin Rega
A graduate of East Anglia’s renowned Creative Writing MA, Konstantin’s been published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Poetry Salzburg Review, www.jonimitchell.com, the Republic of Consciousness Prize (etc.). He contributes to Publisher Weekly and Treblezine.
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