Carol S. Warner joined her first garden club in 1976 knowing little about gardening in general and nothing about irises in particular.
Her first horticultural venture came, she said, "when I put some marigolds beside my driveway."
Today, the 50-year-old Mount Carmel resident is among Maryland's foremost iris experts, as a gardener, nurserywoman and "master judge" who travels around the country judging iris gardens and exhibitions and training other judges.
"It's a hobby out of control," said Mrs. Warner, who has been president of both the state and regional chapters of the American Iris Society, which will hold its 75th national convention starting today in York, Pa.
Mrs. Warner, a former Baltimore County home economics teacher, said her "uncontrollable" hobby began with a garden club visit to the Hereford garden of Maynard and Retta Harp, who specialized in irises.
"I fell in love. I went back in the fall to buy some plants. They talked me into joining the American Iris Society and that was it," she said.
Iris is Greek for rainbow. Iris flowers, majestic on their tall stems, bloom in a veritable rainbow of colors but with blues, purples and white seeming to dominate.
Mrs. Warner's personal gardens, which surround her house, certainly are a rainbow. Among her many colorful varieties of flowers and shrubs are some 800 of the estimated 90,000 iris varieties. They are coming into bloom now.
Among the fascinations of irises is that there are so many varieties, some are always in bloom over a long period -- starting in early March when the reticulata, a small iris, emerges, Mrs. Warner said. Dwarf irises, intermediates and then tall irises follow. Some varieties are re-bloomers, putting out new flowers beginning in August.
Mrs. Warner is also national secretary of the Society for &r Japanese Irises, and some of her prize blooms will be among those on display when that society holds its 10th national convention June 22 to 24 at the Towson Sheraton hotel. Members are expected from as far away as Japan and Belgium.
'Fair but thorough'
"If you've seen her garden, you know what kind of a gardener she is. She grows everything just superbly," said Doris Simpson, former president of the Hardy Garden Club, which was formed in Ruxton in 1913.
"She's a gardener's gardener and she ranks very high among iris judges. She's very fair but very thorough," said Claire Barr, national president of the American Iris Society. Mrs. Barr, a former Stevenson resident, has lived in Rancho Bernardo, a San Diego suburb, for the past decade.
The American Iris Society has 8,316 members in the United States and Canada. It has 841 judges, of whom 417 rank as master judges, active and retired. The first rank, after training, is "garden judge." After 15 years' experience, one may become a master judge.
Mrs. Warner's commercial garden, from which she has been selling irises nationwide by mail order for four years, is very specialized. The half-acre plot contains thousands of carefully cultivated Japanese and Siberian irises, growing in clumps. It is on her mother's adjoining farm.
Mrs. Warner said she deliberately keeps her operation small, earning enough from it to finance her travels as a judge and "to buy more, more, more" irises.
Among her iris offerings are plants with such exotic names as Butterflies in Flight, Blue Lagoon, Dark Enchantment, Fairy Carillon, Freckled Geisha, Legacy of Love and Umi Botaru. Some of their blossoms may reach up to a foot in diameter.
Mrs. Warner's only registered iris variety so far is called Shaker's Prayer. It is a Siberian iris described as having "small tricolor-veined purple flowers," which stand well above their clumpy foliage.
Irises are perennials that grow from rhizomes, potatolike plant stems that send roots into the earth and put up the shoots that form the plants, sometimes 3 feet or more in height and bearing multiple flowers.
Left alone, rhizomes divide annually to reproduce themselves as genetically pure plants of that particular variety, Mrs. Warner said.
Irises also produce seeds, and new varieties are created because of cross-pollination among plants by bees. Hybridizers use those seeds to seek new varieties that are stronger and produce more and bigger flowers and new color combinations.
The Holy Grail of the iris world is a bright red bloom. Like other growers, Mrs. Warner said, she hybridizes some plants in trying to produce the color, which so far has eluded iris fanciers. The closest is a brick-red color, she said.
There are two types of irises, bearded and beardless, Mrs. Warner said. The purpose of the "beards," like small pieces of fuzz at the base of each petal, is unknown except possibly "as a soft landing spot for bees," she said.
'Nature's signal to bees'
The beardless iris has a color splotch called a "signal" in the same petal area, and again, Mrs. Warner said, "it may be nature's signal to bees where to come."
J. Owings Rebert, president of Maryland's Francis Scott Key Chapter of the American Iris Society, said he has limited knowledge of Mrs. Warner as a judge because she is ineligible to judge events of her local organization.
However, he paid her the accolade of the flower world when he said, "She's a very good gardener."
Mrs. Warner's Draycott Gardens are at 16815 Falls Road. The telephone number is (410) 374-4788.