Hall Iris grower Dana Borglum earns national award

Staff reports
Dana Borglum

When it comes to irises, you can learn all you need to know — and more — from Dana Borglum, whose gardens on Austin Road, a couple of miles west of Hall, explode in a rainbow of blossoms each spring when his irises peonies and day lilies begin to bloom.

Borglum has been a self-taught hybridizer since he first transplanted a clump of irises from a shady area of his property to a better location in 1969. Along the way, he’s  learned plenty from the accidents that sometimes happen, thanks to mother nature. And, he’s earned some national awards from the American Iris Society for two of his creations.

His latest honor came from an iris he’s named Ally Oops — a combination of his granddaughter’s name and the accidental nature of the flower itself.

In 1999, as he and family members were helping visitors to the farm find just the right iris to purchase for their own gardens, Dana’s daughter said a man wanted to buy the yellow Siberian iris with blue veins.

After telling his daughter he didn’t have any flowers matching that description, she told him that yes indeed, there was a flower like that in a bed at the front of the property. “I rushed over there and dug it up right away and moved it to the back of the barn, where nobody would bother me about wanting to buy it.” he says.

The new flower, which he says grows like a weed, grew for a couple of years on his farm.

Eventually, he sent three pieces to the national society. Those pieces were sent to three different gardens. After another three years, he attended the society’s convention in Oregon. Wet and cold, the growing season had been unkind to many of the irises that year. But his Ally Oops were in their glory, they got a lot of attention, and he got a new medal and the recognition that this is a one-of-a-kind plant.

While hybridizers plan and experiment to cross-breed desirable characteristics into plants, sometimes mother nature — with the help of a bumble bee — manages to create a new plant.

Borglum figures that’s exactly what happened in this case, even though geneticists had said the plant simply isn’t possible. “However, nobody told my bumble bee and he’s persistent,” he adds.

Apparently, a Siberian iris’s seed pod ripened and tipped over, dumping its seeds. “The next year, a whole bunch of seedlings came up,” he said, explaining he thinks the “father” is a water iris.

“It’s the only iris with that pedigree in the world. All on account of that bumble bee. It really wasn’t of my doing at all. I was just lucky enough to have it happen on my farm,” he explains

Ally Oops, which won the Randolph Perry Medal and was a finalist for the society’s top honor — the Dykes Award — is the second flower to earn Borglum an award. In 2002, he won a Morgan Wood medal for a Siberian iris named Lake Keuka.

Borglum could probably teach a college level course in hybridizing, and while his background is not in biology or education, he has plenty of experience in genetics. Retired as an artificial inseminator who worked with dairy herds in Wyoming County, the concept of planning to breed favorable characteristics into a species was not at all new to him.

After learning the finer points of hybridizing, he and his wife, Sylvia, had another challenge — what to do with all the extra seedlings? A few well-read advertisements brought some curious gardeners to the farm, and before long, there were so many, that he and his crew of family struggled to keep up with the demand.

Thus, the evolution to a dig your own iris garden, where visitors borrow a spade and fill their own shopping bag.

Now, 1,000 people visit the Borglum Gardens during bloom season, from about May 15 to June 25. For details about the bloom season, call 585-526-6729.

“All this gives me a reason and a method to keep fit in my retirement,” Borglum writes on his website.

Borglum Gardens in bloom.