New Iris Garden a Highlight of McMurry Centennial Celebrations

Donations are be accepted to help sustain the new Centennial Iris Garden at McMurry University. To donate, contact Josh Poorman, executive director of development, at poorman.josh@mcm.edu or 325.793.4763.

By LORETTA FULTON

A longstanding tradition at McMurry University that ended in 2007 is being resurrected for the university’s centennial celebration.

McMurry opened in September 1923, but centennial events already have begun on campus. Next up will be the planting of the Centennial Iris Garden, a downsized version of the original garden that was planted in the early 1960s and was dug up in 2007 when an addition was added to the south side of Radford Auditorium. 

Planting of the smaller garden, located on the southwest corner of Wah Wahtaysee Park, will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 17. 

“Everyone is invited,” said Pug Parris, a retired McMurry faculty member who almost single-handedly has kept the dream of the iris garden alive. 

Photo at left shows McMurry’s Centennial Iris Garden ready to plant. In the photo at right, Pug Parris points to the structure of the garden before concrete was poured.

The event will include the “blessing of the rhizomes” and a brief history of the garden prior to planting. Guests are asked to bring their own planting tools such as gloves, trowels, and knee pads. Official dedication of the garden will be in April 2023, the first blooming season. 

“My personal dream is to have the garden endowed so that it will never fall into disrepair,” Parris said. 

A McMurry announcement about the garden noted that it will house a few small shrubs, other native plants, and a central sculpture, which will be created by Dan Brooks, who also did the sculpture of Grant Teaff. The iris sculpture will be dedicated during Alumni Weekend ceremonies in April 2023.

Irises for the Centennial Iris Garden will come from Parris’ home garden. The McMurry garden features concrete walkways between spaces for beds. 

“One of the features of this new garden is the ADA-compliant guidelines,” Parris said.”There is a ramp for access to the garden on the southwest corner, and the sidewalk areas are wide enough for a wheelchair.”

The garden will have room for 80 varieties of historical irises, closely spanning the 100 years of McMurry’s existence, Parris said. Each year the American Iris Society awards one single new hybridized variety the title of “best in the US”. The award is called the Dykes Medal, and only those winners will be planted in the Centennial Iris Garden.  

On Sept. 17, volunteers will plant 74 varieties of Dykes Medal winners, starting with the first-ever winner, San Francisco, which won the award in 1927, and continuing to the 2021 winners. 

“The remaining six spots will be filled in the future as winners are selected for 2022 and 2023,” Parris said, “and some more specific breeds as they are available.”

Dr. Joe Humprey in the original McMurry iris garden.

None of the irises in the new garden will be from the original McMurry iris garden, Parris said. The plants from that garden didn’t survive, although many McMurry friends, including Parris, still have irises that were from the thinning process that occurred when the old garden was cleared. 

The iris garden was the brainchild of Norlan Henderson, who was hired to teach botany at McMurry in 1961. He got permission from administrators to install an iris garden on the southeast side of McMurry’s signature building, Radford Auditorium. 

“He populated the garden from his own hybrids and Award of Merit winners by the American Iris Society,” according to a history of the garden prepared by Parris. 

Henderson later became friends with Joe Humphrey, a McMurry education professor and former Abilene High School teacher and principal, and former state legislator. At McMurry, he served as academic dean, administrative assistant to the president, and professor of education. Humphrey died in 1996. 

Norlan Henderson, former McMurry botany professor, who started the iris garden in the early 1960s.

“When Dr. Henderson left McMurry, it was the effervescent Dr. Joe who continued care for the McMurry iris garden for three decades,” according to the history. 

Henderson, who died in 2016 at age 100, founded the Award of Merit Iris Garden at Powell Gardens in Kansas City. After leaving McMurry, he was a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City for 24 years, retiring in 1988. 

Henderson was a published classical botanist and received numerous awards for his contributions to the iris world and to the large database, Flora of North America.

As a hybridizer, Henderson registered 15 creations with the American Iris Society. 

“The official flower of Kansas City is the iris, thanks to Dr. Norlan Henderson,” according to the history. 

Loretta Fulton is editor of Spirit of Abilene

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