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52,000 Irises Saved—and Counting

Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative

Published: February 29, 2024
Last Updated: June 1, 2024

52,000 Irises Saved—and Counting

Photo by Kent Benton, Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative

Abbeville Red Irises.

The greatest concentration of the five species of iris native to the Gulf South grow in Louisiana. At one time, these Louisiana irises covered the southern portion of the state.

“The Louisiana iris has been part of the culture for years,” said Gary Salathe, president of the Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative (LICI). “It was something that every Louisianan saw because they were in every ditch and every yard.”

LICI’s role is to rescue and replant endangered Louisiana irises. A few years ago, when examining twelve public South Louisiana boardwalks that stretched over iris habitat in parks and refuges, LICI volunteers found that only two boardwalks included the native plant. The prospect of reintroducing the Louisiana iris to these boardwalks served two purposes for LICI, Salathe explained: to return the proliferation of the iris and to educate those boardwalk visitors on the value of South Louisiana’s wetlands as a buffer from storm surge.

“The boardwalks serve a purpose,” he said, “to safely get people out into a habitat that people take for granted. The intention is to bring awareness to Louisiana swamp habitats. We used the Louisiana iris as a tool.”

In April 2023 the organization teamed up with Friends of the Palmetto Island State Park volunteers to introduce the Iris nelsonii species of the Louisiana iris, known commonly as the Abbeville Red, to the Palmetto Island State Park boardwalk in Vermilion Parish. These unique red irises are only found naturally in the nearby Abbeville Swamp, so LICI has been working to acquire swamp irises to plant inside the park.

Earlier this year LICI volunteer Kent Benton collected seed pods from the Abbeville Swamp and began growing seedlings at LICI’s iris nursery in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward neighborhood. In September, about fifty volunteers removed numerous invasive Chinese tallow trees from the Palmetto’s boardwalk swamp in advance of the seedling planting, which occurred in November. The irises should bloom in spring 2025 for boardwalk visitors to enjoy.

“The stage is set,” Salathe said.

LICI hopes that once the Abbeville Reds are established at Palmetto, seeds from these plants will be used to replant the Abbeville Swamp so that it might be a habitat for thousands of irises once again.

Thanks to LICI, all twelve boardwalks they identified for their conservation efforts now contain Louisiana iris. To date, LICI has rescued and relocated 52,000 Louisiana iris.

For more information, visit the Louisiana Iris Conservation Initiative (LICI) at licisaveirises.com.

Cheré Dastugue Coen is a food and travel writer. She is the author of Exploring Cajun Country and Haunted Lafayette, Louisiana, plus Louisiana novels under the pen name of Cherie Claire.