History of KCIS

By George Lankow, August 8, 2008


Back in 1946, 11 women who had a love for irises met at the Gowman Hotel in Seattle to organize what they called the Seattle Iris Society. That same year, the society became affiliated with the parent organization, the American Iris Society (AIS), and the AIS Regional (WA, OR, and AK) organization, Region 13. They also joined forces with the Snoqualmie District of Federated Garden Clubs for those that desired to learn more about iris artistic arrangements. For reasons unknown, this group was also affiliated with the Iris Society of England. They agreed on their purpose as "to promote and encourage a wider interest in the growing of irises."

To reflect the growth of our club, its name was changed to the King County Iris Society in 1977. Today, the society has grown to include all of the greater Seattle area. This includes as far north as Snohomish County, where two commercial iris gardens are presently in operation (Walsterway Iris Gardens, organized in 1986, and the recently organized Cascadia Iris Gardens). To the South, we have a major garden in Covington (Jayne Ritchie Iris Garden, organized in 1974 and still putting out a price list).


By 1947, our membership had increased from the original 11 women to 80 members (including two brave men). Since then, our membership has been cyclic, hitting a low of 17 members in 1956 and a high of 180 members in 1988. The years of highest membership occurred during the mid to late 1980s. These were stimulated by Seattle hosting a week-long AIS National Convention in 1984 that attracted iris lovers from all over the world. There were 12 Iris Display Gardens on bus tours from Everson in the north to Tacoma in the south. Also included were iris displays at the Rhododendron Species Foundation Garden and Ste. Michelle Winery Garden.

Presently, our membership is on what would be called these days a surge. A few years back, we were fortunate to gain a number of enthusiastic new members who have now taken over the club's leadership. They have been effective in growing the club; for instance, we signed up 13 new members last February during the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. This pushed our membership up to 68 members, the highest this decade.

Our longest-standing club member, dating back to 1963, is the world-famous botanist Jean Witt. (Among other accomplishments, she has recently completed an update of her Species Iris Checklist, which lists and describes every known Species Iris growing in the wild.) In addition to Jean, five other current members have been active since the 1970s, and six more from the 1980s, making a total of 12 current members that have been active since the 1980s. This blends in with our new blood.


Iris shows educate the community about the beauty of the many types of irises that can be easily grown in this area. We started off with a private iris show on June 5, 1950, at the Bon Marche (now Macy's) in Southcenter Mall (now Westfield Shopping Towne), consisting of six tables of irises. In May 1957, we held our first public iris show at Southcenter in conjunction with the District of Federated Gardens. By the mid-60s, we had quite a following for our iris shows. The enthusiasm for these shows lessened toward the end of the 60s, and our shows were finally temporarily discontinued.

On May 21, 1977, we resumed our shows at Southcenter. The shows proved to be very popular with the public, so Southcenter requested we come back about the same time each year. This lasted until 1992, at which time the mall underwent extensive remodeling and ceased to host flower shows. For a number of years, these late shows were held at the Pavilion Shopping Center south of Southcenter. We also began holding early shows at various smaller malls. These shows were stimulated by the growing interest in the earlier blooming bearded Median irises. Since then, we have held both our early and late shows at Bellevue Crossroads Mall, which leans over backwards to accommodate us. For the last few years, we have relied once again on the Federated District of Garden Clubs to provide the artistic arrangements, which has contributed to the strong appeal to the public.

Since February 1990, we have been renting a booth at the Northwest Flower and Garden Show. The show has been extremely successful, as each year we have expanded our display to further attract the public.


We hold sales to raise money for our educational events, such as shows and programs, as well as advertising and other expenses. Starting in 1948, our sales were private auctions or low-key public sales. These continued until 1977, when we held our first major exclusive sale out of doors at Bellevue Square Mall using white-painted wooden crate boxes. Sales continued there until around 1981, when the mall was remodeled. At around that time, we added a second sale each year, our bearded iris sale in August and our beardless iris sale in September. These sales were usually held at Bellevue Crossroads Mall, where we also hold our shows. Our sales have greatly increased the interest in irises throughout the community.


Starting in 1947, our club has issued monthly Newsletters that notify our members of current activities and special reports. At the beginning of each year, we distribute a Yearbook containing a membership roster, a list of officers, bylaws, committee chairs, and programs and activities.


Our club seems to thrive when we have an active hybridizing program. It must be the thrill of hearing about, seeing photos of, and viewing new iris created by our fellow breeders.

The first iris registered by one of our members was introduced in 1948, two years after our club was formed. The first meetings on hybridizing was held the following year; the subsequent years have seen many additional meetings on the subject of hybridizing. Also, many of our meetings have included presentations by hybridizers, both our own and other AIS members, describing the crosses they made for a particular seedling (a new iris that has not been introduced).

Later in the 1950s and early 1960s, iris interest increased by having within the club a number of hybridizers who later were to gain national fame. Under the influence of these hybridizers, strong ties developed with the Northwest Median Iris Group of Region 13. In the spring, garden tours would alternate between the Portland and Seattle areas. We also held fall Median iris meetings, at which breeders reported on what they were doing and beginners were encouraged to ask questions. This later developed into our present-day Regional spring meetings, which included iris garden tours by Regional members. For the fall meeting, we featured well-known iris speakers. Cities that have hosted regional meetings have included Salem, Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, Tri-Cities, Wenatchee, Spokane, and Walla Walla.

Hybridizing began to be more popular once again in the mid-1970s, when some experienced hybridizers moved into the Seattle area to supplement our existing breeders. With these new gardens, our club elected to hold the AIS National Convention here in Seattle in 1984; having gained sufficient confidence that visitors would be attracted to our gardens. We were successful, having over 500 attendees.

Hybridizing moved along at a moderate pace after the national convention for over a decade. Recently, four of our newer members have decided to take up hybridizing. This is stimulating new interests in irises. For instance, the club now feels we have sufficient gardens to once again host a Region 13 spring meeting.

In parallel with this surge, we have partnered for the last 6 years with the Highland Botanical Garden (HBG), sponsored by the city of Seatac, where we have an established a large iris bed. For the last half a year we have a similar arrangement with the Lake Wilderness Arboretum (LWA), sponsored by Maple Valley, where we plan to plant multiple iris beds. We are enthusiastic as both arboretums attract many visitors with their cultivated landscapes. Each also conducts many sales and educational programs and promotes horticultural science opportunities throughout its vast array of gardens.

We feel all this adds up to an active future for our club. Hopefully, we will attract many more new members to join us on our exciting voyage.