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General Subjects => The International Rock Gardener - Feedback Forum => Topic started by: Pacific Rim on March 23, 2011, 02:53:16 PM

Title: IRG 15 - a tale of Iris stocksii
Post by: Pacific Rim on March 23, 2011, 02:53:16 PM
This article is highlighted in the March issue IRG 15
( )
and is published here in full.

The Taliban don’t give phytos:
How a special iris was spirited from Afghanistan

By Paige Woodward

In the small hours of February 22, 2010, I was dozily playing computer Scrabble when an
email with attachments landed.

From: Juan Piek, Deputy Security Co-ordinator, Kajaki Dam.
“Hi there. I am a South African currently working in Helmand province in Afghanistan and I
have come across a plant that I cannot identify other than that it is an
Iris species. I had a look at your site after spending many hours on the internet … It is
currently in bloom after some rain we had. I hope it’s a new species that I discovered —
what’s the chance!”



What a beautiful plant. It was clearly a Juno — a bulbous iris of subgenus Scorpiris, native
to dry western and Central Asia. But which? All images here are copyright A.J. (Andre
Juan) Piek, by the way, with a few, noted exceptions.

I trolled through Brian Mathew’s descriptions of Junos in A Guide to Species Irises; saw that
I knew too little to make headway; fired Juan’s images off to a couple of irisarian friends
for their opinions; and asked Juan for more details. Elevation? Soil type? Companions? Juan
kept feeding me information when he had time.



On the pic above, Juan is pointing at the Iris. The lake behind him was formed by the Helmand
River backed up behind the Kajaki Dam (

At first I withheld Juan’s identity and location,
for his privacy and safety. But he doesn’t care whether his name is out there. This is Juan
Piek’s story, really. I am just the intermediary.
Title: Re: IRG 15 - a tale of Iris stocksii
Post by: Pacific Rim on March 23, 2011, 03:04:05 PM


You’d think images like these Juan took would be restricted in time of war, but similar
ones are already on the Internet, some of them officially posted by coalition forces.
The dam, about 160 km (100 miles) NW of Kandahar, supplies both electricity and irrigation
to a wide area of SW Afghanistan. Farmers in this parched region use water to grow
poppies for the opium trade, yes, but food crops, too: wheat, fruits and vegetables. The
dam also supplies crucial water to Iran. Begun in the 1950s with American aid, it remains
incomplete, but it’s an obvious military target.

Here is the lake seen from a helicopter.


 The map is from Wikipedia. It shows the Helmand River, Kandahar and Kabul, but not the Kajaki Dam, unfortunately. The dam is on the Helmand in the foothills of the mountains, easy to find in Google Maps or Google Earth.
Title: Re: IRG 15 - a tale of Iris stocksii
Post by: Pacific Rim on March 23, 2011, 03:09:26 PM


This is the dry terrain around the dam, eroded by the river. Taliban and coalition forces
sometimes clash nearby. Landmines abound, left over from the Russian occupation of 1979-
1988. The Mujahideen were anti-Marxist freedom fighters, armed mainly by western
powers, only to morph (some of them) into the Taliban. Like so much else, it’s
complicated. Just: here and there one finds an abandoned Russian tank; only some areas
have been cleared of landmines; this is no place for a picnic.

My irisarian friends couldn’t identify the iris. Neither is strictly a Juno expert.

In the whole world there are only a few Juno experts. I made a short list and emailed
five: “If the ID is super-obvious, let us all have a good laugh. If the iris is interesting, this
fellow would be pleased to send you samples.”

It’s so hard to be expert. You have to be adroit on the monkeybars of botany; incessantly
curious; hyper-observant, noticing what has not been seen before; well informed, with
access to the latest data fresh, before publication. You also have to be hard to bamboozle
with shoddy molecular work; and it helps to be a good grower. And never sleep.

Here are the five:
Tony Hall, the foremost expert on Junos; he retired as head of Kew’s alpine unit
and is now an honorary research associate working on a monograph of Junos.
Arnis Seisums, botanist and plant explorer, of Salaspils Botanic Garden in Latvia;
he is collaborating with Tony on the Junos monograph.
Brian Mathew, former chief botanist at Kew; monographer extraordinaire of
Carol Wilson, Research Assistant Professor at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden
and Claremont Graduate University in California; she is working on the molecular
phylogeny of Iris and has collected Junos in the Middle East.
Jim Almond, proprietor of the website Alpines for the Enthusiast (, and co-holder
with Kew of the UK’s national collection of Junos.

Brian Mathew was first to reply.

“Dear Paige
”Nothing to laugh about! This is a superb photo of Iris stocksii (Baker)
Boissier, a 'Juno' Iris described by Baker in 1876. It is widespread in the
south and east of Afghanistan and on into southern Pakistan. Although it has
been collected many times — mostly as dried specimens in herbaria — it has
never been cultivated to any great extent so seeds would be very welcome —
should be ripe about May I imagine. Do tell your correspondent to be careful
— no plant is worth getting your foot blown off for!
Could you ascertain if he would be happy for a note to appear in the Iris
Species Group's newsletter?
Many thanks for sending this on, it is exciting.”

The others chimed in: it’s stocksii.

Tony Hall: “This iris is extremely exciting, especially as I have been studying this group
(the "junos" or more properly Iris subgenus Scorpiris) for over 30 years and this plant has
not been in cultivation during that time period. I feel sure this is Iris stocksii, quite
widespread in Afghanistan and also occurring over the border in adjacent Pakistan. The
only other possibility is I. odontostyla, a more restricted Afghan species but superficially
quite similar....but I am inclined towards the former. I would be overjoyed to receive
either bulbs (they would need to be dug up very carefully, the fragile roots kept intact if
possible and stored/mailed dry and protected from crushing in paper, not a polythene
bag), seeds or even a dried specimen in flower.”

Home addresses quietly blossomed beneath the gods’ signatures.

Juan and his friends were giddy, too. “It’s so exciting getting this mail, friends and family
and co-workers, even the locals are waiting for this outcome and feedback.”
Title: Re: IRG 15 - a tale of Iris stocksii
Post by: Pacific Rim on March 23, 2011, 03:11:51 PM

I did consider the legality of removing plant material from a foreign land without
permission, and discussed it with Juan. But the iris is not rare, the populaton at the dam is
far more threatened by war than by the trowel, and as far as I know, the Taliban don’t give
phytosanitary certificates. I told all concerned that if there is a problem, I am not a
botanical garden, and I will take the hit.

[attach =1]

Here is Juan again. One of the security firm’s two interpreters accompanies Juan all day.
The interpreter was given a camera. “After I looked at his photos … I noticed the flower in
the background.”
The rainy season — more properly, the period when any moisture falls at all — begins in
November and ends in early March. It rained for several days in January. The iris emerged
quickly, then bloomed. Juan found it “on several mountains around the dam wall” at 1036
– 2000 m (3400-3600 ft.). He noticed few insects there, even under rocks: might the iris
be wind-pollinated?

[attach =3]



Title: Re: IRG 15 - a tale of Iris stocksii
Post by: Pacific Rim on March 23, 2011, 03:18:35 PM
“The soil is fine with a clay base keeping it moist for quite some time after
the rain. The soil is shallow, some places only couple of inches deep and there are some
mosses growing on rocks close to the plant.”

By mid-March the iris was going to seed, just as many other plants, and fruit trees, were
coming into bloom.



 Among the other plants Juan found were Hyoscyamus sp.(above),



a Prunus of some kind (above),


and an Astragalus (above). Brian Mathew identified these plants.

Title: Re: IRG 15 - a tale of Iris stocksii
Post by: Pacific Rim on March 23, 2011, 03:22:36 PM

Juan also sent pictures of his life on and off-duty. Here’s a guy guarding a dam against the
Taliban for a security firm, Hart International; he used to be in the South African armed
The question was bound to come up. Are you a mercenary, Juan? Certainly not, he
replied. It’s illegal for South Africans to be mercenaries. “We do not call ourselves or see
ourselves as mercenaries. We are not a hired army. We do mere security work.”
Juan is at the dam for months at a time; the only way in or out is by helicopter.
It’s dangerous but these things are relative. Anyone trying to attack the dam from the
ground would have to hack through an outer ring of coalition forces, an inner one of Afghan
army and police, and then Juan’s security guards.


Here is Juan off-duty, having tea, or chai in the local Pushtu dialect, with friends


And here is a Protea, a member of his favorite genus, that he photographed back in South
 He might not know bulbs, but he likes plants a lot. He built his first greenhouse at
age 10 and is now in his mid-30s; he is well aware of South Africa's botanical riches.

According to his interpreter, the iris is called ghar gul (mountain onion) in Pushtu. And it is
considered edible.



Juan dug samples of ghar gul in growth to show us. I was aghast, having counselled him to
wait until the leaves died down.
Tony made the most of this breach of protocol. “It is always interesting to see a whole
plant in its actively-growing state (not a thing one would want to risk with cultivated Juno
material) although there didn't seem to be many newly formed pale fleshy roots, unless
they were accidentally detached during excavation. So for me these images are very
helpful, especially as Juan has thoughtfully provided a ruler to give us some idea of scale.”
Title: Re: IRG 15 - a tale of Iris stocksii
Post by: Pacific Rim on March 23, 2011, 03:26:06 PM


Juan also found a tulip. It didn’t seem to excite our five experts as much as Iris stocksii
did. I fell in love with its heavy, glaucous, wavy leaves and rashly asked whether it might
be related to Tulipa vvedenskyi. Discreet silence. Not useful characters, I deduced.



Arnis tentatively called it Tulipa borszczowii, which so far has not been recorded in
Afghanistan. Others suggested T. lehmanniana. Brian said it may all come down to what
kind of hair the tulip’s bulb tunic has. In any case, the tulips are closely related, possibly
rarer than Iris stocksii in the wild, and probably as scarce as stocksii in captivity.
 I “know” this because after the vvedenskyi debacle I ordered Tulips: Species and Hybrids for the
Gardener, by Richard Wilford, who succeeded Tony as manager of Kew’s alpines.


Here are three of the tulip’s very hairy bulbs. We will leave interpreting the hair to others.

Juan went home on leave and mailed parcels to the five iris gods.

But that is not the end of the story.
Title: Re: IRG 15 - a tale of Iris stocksii
Post by: Pacific Rim on March 23, 2011, 03:35:37 PM
At Kew, Iris stocksii was recorded as accession number 2010-1073, coll. A. J. Piek.
Seven seeds were sacrificed for DNA analysis at the Jodrell Laboratory, half the remaining seeds
were sent to Henrik Zetterlund of Gothenburg Botanic Garden in Sweden, and a few seeds
were shared with other expert growers.

In Latvia, Arnis Seisums insisted on sending me some rare bulbs, beautifully grown, in
gratitude for my help in bringing I. stocksii and the tulip back to science. I told him it was
nothing — and very enjoyable — but I was honored to receive the bulbs.

I was supposed to co-write a little piece on Iris stocksii with Brian (he doing the botanical
part); but things happened and I didn’t. But knowledge wants to be free. Tony chatted
with a friend and stocksii was suddenly on the internet (


Then the American Iris Society reprinted the story. And now the British Iris Society will
soon print a story of its own. I have wondered whether to bother writing what you’re
reading now. But I wanted to share the flavor of the adventure, and I wanted Juan Piek’s
role in it to be better known.
Brian’s botanical take is also presented, in a later post.


Now it is spring again. At the Kajaki Dam, Iris stocksii is up (above, with a matchbox for
scale); Juan has been promoted from Deputy to Director of Security; and major upgrades
are scheduled for the dam’s turbines.


At Kew, seeds of both stocksii and the tulip are up.
(Kew photos by Richard Wilford).
 The tulip bulb has made two leaves and might bloom next year; the iris bulb is putting energy into replacing its lost roots

Tony comments on the image from the dam: “It shows just how good Iris stocksii is at
increasing vegetatively — one can equate it with I. fosteriana, which also has this useful
attribute, although that species is relatively easy to grow here at Kew!”
The DNA work at the Jodrell Laboratory is for a landmark paper on Junos to be published in
the Linnean Society journal, probably this autumn. Tony Hall is co-main author with Nursel
Ikinci from Turkey, who got a grant to do the initial lab work at Kew.

Tony explains: “This is a very detailed study of the junos, with all species and species
complexes in cultivation sampled, but not those 10 or so — primarily from Afghanistan --
not grown. Which is why Juan's collection was so important.”

From the few hints I’ve had of the findings, I’d give up spring and summer to read that
paper right now.

This week I was surprised to learn that images of Iris stocksii, from the Pakistan part of its
range, were posted on the website of SIGNA ( (the Species Iris Group of North America) way back in 2009.  
 I haven’t been able to learn more about the source** but Tony told me that
“6 seeds were sent to Kew of the Pakistan form (probably the same source as that SIGNA
image). The seeds were collected in Baluchistan: Quetta. They too have germinated here
at Kew.” But there weren’t enough to sacrifice for DNA testing.

Tony’s and Arnis’s monograph on Junos might be ready in five years, if all goes well.
that still won’t be the end of the story. There is no end. There will always be more to
know and to share.  

 **... Ed.- Rafa Diez-Dominguez uploaded to SIGNA Iris Database important pictures of Iris stocksii that his friend Mr. Muhammad Ali Musa took some time ago in Pakistan.
Rafa has received seed and has shared this with some other growers so we can hope that this Iris is becoming secure in cultivation.

Title: Re: IRG 15 - a tale of Iris stocksii
Post by: Pacific Rim on March 23, 2011, 03:48:13 PM
From Brian Mathew:


Type specimen of Iris stocksii in the Kew herbarium

Iris stocksii

The Herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew contains many type specimens – those important original dried specimens upon which the first descriptions of species are based. Ideally, for complete accuracy, all subsequent identifications are compared with these although this is seldom practical as the type specimens for the world’s flora are scattered all over the globe. Iris stocksii is one of the ‘types’ at Kew (see photo above). This species of subgenus Scorpiris (‘Juno iris’) was named and described by Kew botanist John Gilbert Baker in the Gardeners’ Chronicle of 1876: in those days the journal had a very substantial botanical content. At that time Baker regarded the bulbous irises as a separate genus Xiphion, incorporating I. xiphium and its relatives (the Spanish irises), the reticulatas and the junos, so his name for this new species was X. stocksii. The Swiss botanist Edmund Boissier, author of the multi-volume Flora Orientalis, transferred it to the genus Iris in 1882, while Leopold Trattinick added a third genus into the equation – Juno – although it was left to Friedrich Klatt to make the formal combination Juno stocksii (Baker) Klatt, also in 1882. As always in taxonomy, opinions vary greatly and there is a range of views, W. R. Dykes for example treating all ‘irises’ as one genus, through to George Rodionenko who divides them into several separate genera. This article is not the place to discuss these matters, except to say that molecular studies suggest the ‘junos’ fit best within a large genus Iris, as do all other subgenera and sections of species plus Hermodactylus, Pardanthopsis and Belamcanda.

J. G. Baker named his species after Dr John Ellerton Stocks {born 1820 although often stated to be 1822 but this is incorrect) in Dottingham (?=Cottingham) near Hull, England, died 1854}. Stocks was a botanist-doctor in the Bombay medical staff and during this time he travelled widely, notably in ‘Scinde (Sindh) and Baluchistan’, investigating the natural plant products. Later he became inspector of drugs for the East India Company. His interest and expertise in natural history led to the accumulation of a large collection of dried specimens, the Baluchistan samples of which were made between 1847 and 1853. Stocks then returned to England to study the specimens at Kew and to write up an account of the natural history, customs and products of the region; sadly he died the next year before completing this work but he is commemorated in the Iris and at least a couple of dozen other species.

The full citation for Stocks’ species is:

Iris stocksii (Baker) Boissier, Flora Orientalis 5: 123 (1882). Type: Pakistan, near Quetta, ‘Dooband Chehel Tun’, Stocks 961 (specimen at Kew).  

Description: Bulb ovoid with a long neck of brown papery tunics reaching to the soil surface; roots long and slender, not appreciably swollen. Leaves 4-5, greyish-green, prominently veined, well developed at flowering time, up to c. 21 cm long, 5-21 mm wide but expanding by fruiting stage to 20 mm wide, long-tapering to an acute apex, the margin white and very conspicuous. Stem short and hidden at flowering time, concealed by the leaf bases, but extending to 10-30 cm in the fruiting stage with clearly visible internodes. Spathe valves 4-6 cm long, acute, green with a transparent margin. Flowers 1-4, 5-6 cm in diameter, in varying shades of lavender or bluish-violet, the outer tepals (‘falls’) with darker blades and yellow crests; perianth tube 3-5 cm long; falls 3.5-4.5 cm long, widely winged in the centre, the wings held more or less upright and measuring c. 2-2.5 cm across the width of the haft of the fall; blade (lamina) of falls oblong, 1-1.5 cm long, 0.8-1 cm wide, with a yellow crest c 5 mm long; standards narrowly obovate, 1-1.8 cm long, c. 0.5 cm wide, held out horizontally or slightly down-curved. Stamens c. 2-2.3 cm long. Style branches c. 3 cm long, each with two conspicuous, erect lobes c. 1 cm long. Capsule ellipsoid, 3-5 cm long, seeds c. 5 mm long, ovoid-globose, pointed at one end, with no aril.    

Habitat: Dry stony hills, 1150-2700 m altitude.

Distribution: Western Pakistan (north Baluchistan, especially in the region of Quetta), southern and central Afghanistan north as far as Herat and Kabul.
Title: Re: IRG 15 - a tale of Iris stocksii
Post by: Maggi Young on March 24, 2011, 10:59:23 AM
This is the first "parallel" article for the IRG, introduced in the IRG and posted in full in the Forum.
This allows late additions, extra photos and so on that are not always possible in the IRG itself.

As time permits, Paige will add to this article.

You are welcome to make comments about the article and any further knowledge you may have of these plants in this Forum thread:

Title: Re: IRG 15 - a tale of Iris stocksii
Post by: Pacific Rim on March 25, 2011, 08:24:47 AM
The story is not complete but I'll pause before revising it.
Updates keep landing and I hope for more.
Thanks to all of you, including private correspondents, for your enthusiasm and patience.

Title: Re: IRG 15 - a tale of Iris stocksii
Post by: Maggi Young on March 31, 2011, 11:19:25 AM
It is preferred to keep this thread for posts from Paige.......
Please post any comments about this article across  in this special thread :

Thanks .
Title: Re: IRG 15 - a tale of Iris stocksii
Post by: Maggi Young on February 04, 2012, 05:08:56 PM
So.... some time passes and a little more is added to the story:
The Folks at Kew have had the pleasure of seeing Iris stocksiiflower there for the first time and  Paige is delighted!

See this article on the website of the Human Flower Project:
Title: Re: IRG 15 - a tale of Iris stocksii
Post by: Maggi Young on February 26, 2012, 07:43:53 PM
A forumist captured a photo of Iris stocksii ( the flower slightly past its best) in a display brought by Tony Hall from Kew to a British Iris Society  event the other day......        8)
Title: Re: IRG 15 - a tale of Iris stocksii
Post by: Maggi Young on August 31, 2013, 05:22:02 PM
Please post any comments on this story in this thread : (

Title: Re: IRG 15 - a tale of Iris stocksii
Post by: Finches on November 20, 2015, 09:29:58 PM
Otto, with your excellent gambling reviews site ( I am very  hopeful of the Iris  thriving for you.  Harold Esslemont was still sowing Fritillaria seed at  nearly 90, so you are but a youngster!   

Such a beautiful iris. Is there anyway to get this iris in the UK?
Title: Re: IRG 15 - a tale of Iris stocksii
Post by: Maggi Young on November 20, 2015, 09:42:45 PM
Hi Finches!  No availability of this Iris as far as I know.
Title: Re: IRG 15 - a tale of Iris stocksii
Post by: Otto Fauser on November 21, 2015, 01:19:14 AM
Hello Maggi ,
I germinated 2 seeds of I. stocksii this year . Maybe I will be fortunate to live long enough to see it in flower ? Hopeful at 78 .
Title: Re: IRG 15 - a tale of Iris stocksii
Post by: Maggi Young on November 21, 2015, 11:12:37 AM
Otto,  with your skills I am very  hopeful of the Iris  thriving for you.  Harold Esslemont was still sowing Fritillaria seed at  nearly 90, so you are but a youngster! 
The number of people around the world with access to this beautiful Iris  can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand - so you are extremely fortunate. 
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