by Greg Larson

In May of 2005, I made my first visit to Martin Holland, the man who cultivated and named the Sweet Lena iris that we are now growing at MaryJanesFarm. I can’t tell you exactly how I got to Martin’s place. My map was wrong, you see, and the country was beautiful, so I took myself on a self-guided detour, following my nose down the country roads, heading generally toward Puyallup, Washington.

They were older roads, the kind that show their wrinkles despite their new slick surfaces. I passed by the wooden barns and the yawning wooden fence posts that this road seems always to have known, and I drove through the fields — of corn, peas, grapes and onions — that I know were here way back when Martin was a youngster, during the 1920s and ‘30s. It is a moist region, with a very deep, rich volcanic soil that you can feel in the air, giving rise as it does to such abundant greenery that I must guess that the crickets would sing about it at night, around their little cricket campfires, if only they had the matches.

Martin’s mobile home was easy to spot — parked there in its cute manicured lot, surrounded by pots and pots of Sweet Lena irises. I knocked on the door and, from his chair, Martin called for me to come in. Gads, did Martin have a shiner — a real black eye! Martin had taken a fall recently, and his wife, Lorraine, was encouraging him to remain seated. But as soon as we got to talking about the Sweet Lenas, Martin was on his feet anyhow, walking back and forth to his office, pulling from his archives all kinds of documents, pictures and memorabilia from his life as an iris farmer. As Martin walked me down the lanes of his memory, he kept inviting me further, and every so often he’d turn to me and reach out and touch me. “How about that?” he’d ask, tapping his hand to my shoulder, “Isn’t that something?”

Martin had a few irises in bloom. As I had not smelled one yet, I went out to the yard. I found the fragrance delightful. To me, it is a deep sweet violet scent; it left me with an astonishing and vivid impression, as though I’d just seen a rainbow. “It’s wonderful,” I told him. But Martin knows this. He knows it like crazy.

Martin is like one of these old country roads — he takes you out to older places where the past is still standing. Martin’s hands have plied a shovel for the Civilian Conservation Corps, Martin’s body went forth to the Pacific in World War II. Yet always in Martin’s recollections, however sad or haunting the events, Martin speaks as though there has always been a hint of something wonderful in the air.

There did come a point, however, when some bitter feelings flew about the room. It was late in the day and Lorraine was busy preparing to leave for a concert with her daughter. Martin was describing a recent development in his region, where giant warehouses have begun popping up on old farm plots. Lorraine left off what she was doing, and she talked about it too. How could it be, they wondered, that such land, such deep and fertile soil, could be set upon by these installations? Is there not plenty of less-fertile land for these places to be? For a few confounded moments we sat there, in sympathy with the soil.

For a minute, maybe, there had been this confusion and noise and outrage in our little atmosphere. But soon, let me tell you, Martin’s fragrant disposition returned to the air. On his road, you see, there are these sweet-scented irises planted just about everywhere.

Back to the Sweet Lena Irises.