“Ever Again,” a Siberian Iris created by Currier McEwen, is named for its reblooming ability. Doug Jones/staff photographer

Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens has received a collection of about 70 Siberian irises hybridized by the late Currier McEwen, a Harpswell resident who literally wrote the book – published in 1996 – on Siberian irises.

Harriet Robinson of Otisfield, a past president of the Maine Iris Society and the Garden Club Federation of Maine and current vice president of the Region 1 of the American Iris Society, donated the historical collection that she has grown over several decades.

In the world of irises, McEwen is king. After a stellar career in medicine – he was dean of the New York University School of Medicine – he retired to Harpswell, where he turned his scientific mind from people to plants. According to the dust jacket on his 1996 book “The Siberian Iris,” McEwen “bred, registered and introduced 98 Siberian irises, 34 Japanese irises and 43 day lilies.”

Not bad for a retiree’s hobby.

Courtney Locke, a horticulturist who has been working with Robinson on the project to bring the McEwen irises to the botanical gardens in Boothbay, said they agreed that the irises, all Siberians, should be displayed as a group rather than interspersed with other plants.

“We thought that this would be the best way to honor a man who is not only a giant in the horticultural world, but in the history of Maine,” Locke said. The garden in Boothbay is about a half-hour drive from where the irises were created in Harpswell.


The iris collection is going to be planted near the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens’ butterfly house where there has been a dahlia garden in recent years, and it will now be called Dahlia and Iris Garden. It will be the only spot at the botanical gardens devoted to a specific species. The Giles Rhododendron Garden features rhododendrons, but they are dotted here and there among other plants.

Robinson said she had about 70 Siberian irises in her garden that were producing blooms true to the descriptions of how McEwen said they should look, and those plants were sent to the botanical garden. If she finds more, she plans to send them to be added to the collection.

In 2018, Robinson made a similar donation to McLaughlin Garden in South Paris, where she has worked as a volunteer. About 35 of the irises are still growing there. She hopes the  collection will thrive at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens.

The irises were dug for transfer on April 30. Participants included Ewen McEwen, who is Currier’s son, as well as staff from the botanical garden and Robinson’s family and friends.

Locke noted that Siberian irises recover quickly from transplanting, so some of them could be blossoming in their new home this year, but most of them won’t blossom until next year. The new garden should reach its peak beauty in 2026 and retain it for decades thereafter. Locke said she may plant some annual flowers among the irises this summer to be sure the garden is attractive even before the irises really take hold.

Andrew Brand, director of horticulture at the Boothbay gardens, believes McEwen’s greatest accomplishment was his invention of tetraploid hybrids, which changed the way irises are hybridized. Tetraploids have the chromosomes of four parents instead of two, which can result in larger blossoms, more intense colors and stouter stalks.


Currier McEwen’s “Butter and Sugar” Siberian Iris flourishes in a Harpswell garden. Doug Jones/staff photographer

He added that McEwen’s hybrid “Butter and Sugar” was the first Siberian iris blossom with yellow in it. McEwen created other yellow Siberians after that.

The irises that McEwen introduced to market several decades ago remain popular in the horticultural industry.

Brand is pleased that Ewen McEwen and other members of the McEwen family have been involved with the project from the start, offering advice and support.

Given the popularity of McEwen irises and the fact that irises can be dug and divided, creating new plants after a few years, might Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens consider selling McEwen irises some day, I asked? Brand said the garden has not conducted such sales in the past, but he did not rule out the idea.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: tomatwell@me.com.

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