Iris Gardens Ravaged in Garden State

Montclair, New Jersey's nationally known Presby Memorial Iris Gardens were badly vandalized this week, with some 150 plants uprooted and scattered. The garden contained many specimens not found anywhere else. Melissa Block talks with JoAnn Mukherjee, superintendent of Presby Memorial Iris Gardens.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Gardeners at the historic Presby Memorial Iris Gardens in Montclair, New Jersey, got a shock this week when they discovered that about 150 iris plants had been ripped up and trampled. The irises were in two of the garden's oldest beds and some of the plants are rare, if not unique, specimens not found anywhere else. The iris garden superintendent, JoAnn Mukherjee, describes what she found as she toured the gardens on Wednesday afternoon.

Ms. JoANN MUKHERJEE (Superintendent, Presby Memorial Iris Gardens): When I approached the beds, there were irises all over the paths and in the creek bed and up the hill, and the further down I went the more irises I saw. And in the established bed that was vandalized there were just leaves ripped off, strewn about all over.

BLOCK: When you saw this destruction, your heart must have just sunk.

Ms. MUKHERJEE: It actually did. It's difficult to see something that you put so much time and effort and love into and have it just destroyed overnight because it really is a long, laborious process to try to replant these beds. It's--it generally is a several-week effort. We have to dig up all the irises that were there, carefully label and tag everything, divide them, clean them and then go back in and replant.

BLOCK: But in this case, isn't part of the problem that you don't know anymore which irises are which?

Ms. MUKHERJEE: That is the case. We have an idea what was in that bed, but who any individual iris is is currently unknown. And it'll probably be two years before all of those rhizomes bloom where we can try to identify them.

BLOCK: From what I understand, some of these irises would be virtually one of a kind, the last of a line.

Ms. MUKHERJEE: Virtually all of them are what we would consider to be significant, which means Presby is one of just a very few places left in the country or in the world that would have them. There may be a few at other historic estates. But they're not in commerce anymore, so they're going to be very hard to try and reacquire if we do have to do that. There is at least one that I could think of right away that Presby is the only known location for that iris currently.

BLOCK: Which one is that?

Ms. MUKHERJEE: That is Prince Victor. It was introduced in 1901, and currently we believe Presby is the only location that currently has it.

BLOCK: Well, it sounds like whoever did this really had it in for these flowers. I mean, at this point I guess it becomes a whodunit story.

Ms. MUKHERJEE: Actually, we think it was probably just teen-agers looking for something to do for recreation. We happen to be located right across from the community swimming pool, baseball fields, tennis courts and basketball courts. So we are used as a conduit for many, you know, people and kids in the town.

BLOCK: So this is open; in other words, no fences, no gates?

Ms. MUKHERJEE: Correct. It was designed to be a community treasure. It's a display garden and it's actually a living museum of iris history. And it actually has been present in upper Montclair for 78 years now without much incident.

BLOCK: Well, Ms. Mukherjee, best of luck in trying to put these gardens back together.

Ms. MUKHERJEE: Well, thank you very much, Melissa.

BLOCK: JoAnn Mukherjee is the superintendent of the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens in Montclair, New Jersey, which were vandalized this week.

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