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Joe Ghio Bio

Hybridizer Joe Ghio: Tuscan/Genovese Hybrid

by Joe Ghio, California, published in The American Iris Society, 100 Years Bold!


It is late June,1953. My parents had just a few months earlier bought our first television with the

opening of the first local station which operated from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. We watched every program since the San Francisco stations could only be seen with a 40 foot antenna which only came in "snowy".


While the TV or perhaps radio was on, I made use of the time by thumbing through books and magazines. Recently my mother had bought the June issue of Flower Grower magazine. In that issue I would run across an article on the 100 most popular irises. They concentrated on the top 10 and especially the top five. I was amazed about the colors and patterns irises came in. I thought all irises were purple or white. Number one was a gold, 'Ola Kala' (Jacob Sass 1943), but the shocker was number five--a real pink, 'Pink Cameo' (Fay 1946).


They were pictured and I was overwhelmed. There were ads selling irises and with careful selection you could get a collection from Schreiner's Gardens of eight of the most popular ones, including 'Pink Cameo', for $7.50. I told my mother we should buy a collection to see if they really were those colors, and especially the pink, they said they came in. She said "no" but if I wanted to spend my money on a collection, go ahead. So I cut lawns for 50 cents a yard and as soon as I had $7.50, I got a money order and sent in the order. And so the saga begins 67 years ago.


Shortly, the color Schreiner catalog arrived, which further amazed me, but most importantly Bob Schreiner wrote the "Hybridizer's Corner" in the back pages in which he showed how to "cross" irises and made recommendations. It is there where he wrote what would be my mantra of my hybridizing career: "cross the best with the best available to you". My head was spinning with possibilities and I already made plans to "cross" irises when they bloomed in the spring of 1954. I ended up with some 28 "named" irises, almost all of which bloomed. I crossed everything with everything else, remembering the cross from the position of the pod on the stalk. You want a "green" iris, easy: cross the yellow, 'Ola Kala' (Jacob Sass 1943) by the blue, 'Blue Rhythm' (Whiting 1945). When the results bloomed in 1956, I learned a lot. An important lesson, learning by doing and always remembering the motto, "cross best with the best available to you".


In those days we communicated by writing letters. The AIS had a very active Round Robin program where you wrote a "letter commenting on what others said and new observations of your own" and mailed on to the next on the list. One of the Robins was "Teen and Twenties" where the members were of that age group. It is there where I made contact with what would become lifelong friends, Keith Keppel and Glenn Corlew, among others. In addition the three of us would carry on a 15 year correspondence where we wrote and sent carbon copies to each other. Glenn had a complete set of the letters, but when he later moved he discarded them. The candidness of our comments and observations would be priceless today. We would meet in person in 1958 at one of the first Regional Conventions in San Jose, where the speaker would be the new bright star, Melba Hamblen.

I began exhibiting at the San Jose Iris Shows, not to just win ribbons, but in those days the show schedules were classes by colors. There were only some 15 classes and every person who won a blue ribbon got an iris. This allowed me to expand the varieties I could grow. One of the donors was Jack Craig who worked when attending UC Berkeley in the library under Sydney B. Mitchell. From Mitchell, Jack got seed of various Pacific Coast species. In those days I wrote a post card that I would come and pick up my winnings at his home in Cupertino. He gave me a tour of his plantings, lathe house, greenhouse and gave me starts of many things including I. evansia and he had eight bottles of different Pacifica seed. He asked if I wanted some. I had seen them growing in the mountains around me and wasn't impressed, but to be nice I said OK. So eight packs of seed went home with me as well. Come fall I felt I had to plant the seed. So I filled eight coffee cans with dirt and sowed the seed, ignoring them the rest of the winter. To my surprise they germinated like grass. Not having space to plant out all that grew, I simply transferred the whole can to a shady spot in front of a stone wall and ignored them. Come spring I was shocked to find they came in colors and had nice flowers that bore little resemblance to what grew in the wild. And from there the Pacifica breeding lines began. That was 1960.

There are many other sidebar stories, but back to the heart of the story. Back to the mantra, the best to best; I read that if you want beautiful seedlings, cross 'Snow Flurry' (Clara Rees 1939) by 'Chivalry' (Wills
1944). I had no white irises (you've seen one white, you've seen them all), but I wanted to cross with the best, so I broke down and paid a huge sum of $1.50 to get the highest rated white, 'New Snow' (Fay 1946) to cross with 'Chivalry'. The deed was done and the purchase of 'New Snow' made in 1955 (I already had 'Chivalry'). 'New Snow' bloomed in 1956 with three stalks. I ended up with three pods of the cross. About 100 seedlings resulted and upon returning from the San Jose Regional meeting I stopped first at my Grandmother's in whose backyard I was growing my seedlings. Rushing to the back to see the new bloom, I was struck when I saw the most beautiful iris ever (to me). I wrote my first letter to Keith & Glenn with my exhilaration for this "wonder". It ultimately would be my first introduction, 'Frosted Starlight' (1963), the progenitor of the "bubble ruffles" and ultimately led to the Dykes Medal winner, 'Mystique (1975) DM 1980.


There was a lot of support along the way. I attended and graduated from San Jose State College in 1960 with a BA and high school teaching credential. Receiving an MA in business education, I began teaching in 1961 at Mt. Eden High School in Hayward, open for the second year. Incidentally one of the students there was the granddaughter of William Mohr (yes, that Mohr of iris fame).

I would mostly commute between College, and/or teaching, and Santa Cruz during the bloom season of mid-April to mid-May to be with the irises. During the college years I would visit iris gardens in the San Jose area and Mary Ellen Knopf in Campbell gave me lots of support and encouragement. I even traded fish (my father was a commercial fisherman) for iris. Mary Ellen let me have one anther of pollen of 'Whole Cloth' (Cook 1955), the year it was new.  I treasured that anther dearly. I checked through my seedling bed to find the perfect cross. Using the "cross the best available to you with the best available to you," the conclusion was the things that bloomed with the first crosses made with 'Frosted Starlight" blooming for the first time were best. It was a cross with 'Rehobeth' (DeForest 1953) that would produce 'Twilight Sonata' (introduced later in 1963). I used that
'Whole Cloth' pollen carefully with as many blooms as I could. A cross with a Twilight Sonata' sib would become the base that would ultimately result in 'Mystique'.


My thanks go to many generous people, but how can I forget Neva Sexton? An "Arkie" salt of the earth person. I first saw the iris that would become 'Homecoming Queen' (Sexton 1978) in her new seedlings and went gaga over it. I had all kinds of visions of what I could do with it. She saw my excitement over is said you want pollen? OMG did I! I thought one anther. Remember this is its maiden bloom and had just one stalk with just five buds. She didn't give me one anther, but plucked off one of the buds and gave it to me to open it at home. She is in Wasco some 200+ miles from my home in Santa Cruz. I had recently bloomed what would be 'Ponderosa' (1970) and was developing that line. 'Homecoming Queen' was incorporated into that line and shows up way back in the tangerine bearded material I have produced during the years.

In 1968 a new high school was opening in Santa Cruz and the opportunity arose that I could return to live permanently to the City of my birth. I was offered the job teaching business subjects and U.S. History at the new Harbor High School. I accepted and now could seriously pursue my iris breeding and other interests. I was already somewhat involved with the AIS, serving as Region 14 Bulletin editor, and Region 14 RVP. Also I got involved in local politics leading to being elected to the Santa Cruz City Council in 1975;
I was elected to three terms including two terms as Santa Cruz Mayor.

Golden Jubilee 1970

I've never counted up the number of awards I have received but there has been more than a few. There are two events that happened that stand out in my mind. One was the 50th Anniversary National AIS Convention, headquartered in mid-town Manhattan.


It was 1970 and there was a different Award structure then. There were only 12 Award of Merits given and handing them out at the Awards Ceremony was an important event. I would be given my first Award of Merit for 'Wedding Vow". Even more important, this would be the most outstanding National ever; nothing equaled it before or since. The venue was super, the gardens (really mostly estates) were stunning and everything, everywhere was at stunning peak bloom and perfect weather. How can you forget the beautifully landscaped Watt Garden on the Hudson only two years old? The Thompson planting right on the waterline of the Long Island sound? The estate gardens on Long Island, the Knocke gardens and horse grounds in New Jersey?


Presby Gardens was presided over by Barbara Walthers herself. And finally the piece de resistance, was the Kenneth and Catherine Smith garden on Richmond Hill on Staten Island looking out to the Statue of Liberty, the Battery and Financial area of NYC, and the palisades of New Jersey.


Premio Firenze 1998


The second event never to be equaled was 1988 when I was asked to help judge the Premio Firenze. I was selected chair of the judges' panel. It happens that my maternal grandparents came from Tuscany (Lucca), my father's parents from Genoa (near Portafino). We were hosted like visiting dignitaries.

One of the events was a potluck luncheon where the members brought something they normally make for themselves. I was overwhelmed to see and taste many of the dishes my grandmother had made. But the highlight was when the chair gives a "thank you" speech at the Awards Ceremony in the Hall of the 500. Here you're surrounded by the glories of the Renaissance. I gave the speech in Italian. Soon the attendees were clapping and some were even tearing up. Being ever the politician, I was in my glory becoming even more expansive. How can you forget the clapping, crying, standing audience? I thought it was me, but what hit a chord, I learned, was it was me, an American, speaking Italian with all the inflections, mannerisms, and colloquialisms that only locals would know and use. It was natural to me since learned my Italian from a local, my Nonna.

So here it is, just finishing my 67 years of serious iris growing and hybridizing. Last year marked the last year I published a catalog, having turned over introducing my bearded introductions to Schreiner's Gardens. I continue my growing and breeding, but in the ninth decade of my life it isn't so easy to do any more, but it is no less exciting!

Ed. The AIS Register Lists 924 registrations for Joe Ghio. He was awarded the AIS Hybridizer's Medal in 1979. His iris 'Mystique' (1975 TB) was awarded the Dykes Medal in 1980. He has won innumerable Sidney B. Mitchell Medals for PCIs. He coined the term "bubble ruffling."

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