Edmond Riggs: Iris Propagator
Edited by LMG Calla Victoria
Louisiana Iris Propagator
Although irises put on their big show during the month of March in our gardens, I am compelled do share some important iris information with you even now. While working the Greater New Orleans Iris Society’s show back in March of this year, Patrick O’Connor (one of our members) shared some information with me about an African American named Edmond Riggs; who was one of the earlier iris propagators. Patrick told me that I could probably find more information in the Louisiana Iris archives. After an exhaustive search I landed on the University of Louisiana Archives website, but could not locate any information. After contacting two archivists there, Jane Vidrine, archival assistant, was able to locate the article. The information is located in the Society for Louisiana Irises (SLI) Records in Marie Caillet scrapbooks of the history of Louisiana irises which was collected over six to seven decades. Jane scanned the article and emailed it to me. I also found additional information in an article entitled “Edmond Riggs: The Real Man” by Richard Sloan. Both pieces were used to compile this rendering.
In 1907 in Avoyelles Parish, Edmond Riggs was born black in south Louisiana. Edmond learned the ways of the swamps, fished with his dad for spoonbill catfish, whose eggs were sold for caviar. Edmond began to grow plants to sell out on islands in the swamps, where they wouldn’t be stolen. And using handwritten handouts, he advertised his irises, azaleas, and other plants.
As a horticulturist, Edmond Riggs devised unique nursery systems and became friends with some of the wealthiest men in the area. He planted thousands and thousands of live oak trees, which were another one of his specialties. Along with irises, Edmond Riggs planted azaleas and camellias in the woods and swamps, because they grew best in their natural habitat. He would dig them up when he wanted to sell them.
Edmond became a library assistant and traveled with the bookmobile for 18 years. Riggs got to know many prominents in the white community through his plant sales. One such person was Minnie Colquitt. She and Edmond had corresponded about growing irises in the swamps of Louisiana. Minnie arranged a collecting trip and it wasn’t until the Shreveport ladies arrived for the adventure that they realized Edmond Riggs was a black. That didn’t stop the trip, and some of those very collected irises are probably in the family trees of modern award winners.