Jul 21, 2006
Red Iris Research ContinuesSource: Various

Research remains an ongoing process as growers and plant geneticists try to discover why there are no red irises. Irises are notoriously known for being the easiest flowers to grow and come in a variety of colors. In fact, growers have been able to grow irises in virtually every color except red. With almost no naturally red pigment, irises often veer toward shades of red such as wine, brick or reddish brown.

A red iris – what is now being called the holy grail of flowers – has yet to be discovered, despite advances in science and many efforts to genetically modify the flower.

Heading up the research is Richard Ernst of Cooley’s Gardens, located outside Salem, Ore. A well-known hybridizer, Ernst originally tried producing the red iris by crossing varieties with characteristics usually used to generate a red flower. In 2004, he predicted the solution to the problem of the red iris would be solved by the national conference of the American Irish Society in May 2006. However, it seems it will be double Ernst’s estimate before anyone knows the results.

“We expected to spend only four years; we’re now on 14 years,” Ernst told the New York Times. “After about eight years we were getting a little bit disgusted. It was taking too long. Then we came to the realization of how complicated this is.”

Ernst works alongside Tony H. H. Chen, a professor at Oregon State University who spent three years establishing a protocol for regeneration of the plant from cultured cells. He then spent an additional 2-3 years designing a way to insert a marker gene and grow a transgenic plant with that gene.

Currently, Dr. Chen is working to introduce genes from two different lilies – the coral lily (Lilum pumilum) and the tiger lily (Lilium lancifolium). He will combine the two varieties of lily with an ordinary red pepper to put additional red in the lily.

Another problem preventing the breeding of red irises is that every iris contains anthocyanin. This pigment is responsible for the flower’s prevalent purple colors and is what tends to create a more wine-colored flower like Ernst’s ‘Classic Bordeaux’.

Currently, Keith Keppel, a hybridizer in Oregon, is trying to counter this pigment with other pigments in yellows, pinks and oranges that may serve to combine in the epidermal layer of the flower to create a more true red color. Hybridizers like Keppel have successfully crossed plants to achieve a reddish color on the beard of the flower; however, they have yet to find a way to transport the color onto the petals.

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