50 years of iris
It graces the city’s downtown streetscape and has a local festival named after it, but how did the iris, a brightly-colored flower that takes its name from the Greek word for rainbow, become Porterville’s official flower?
“There were two guys — Jim Gibson and Bill Shortman and they were both worldwide-known growers of iris,” said local historian Jeff Edwards.
Gibson was a local high school teacher and Shortman the owner of a motorcycle repair shop in town, Edwards said. Both gentlemen, he said, were from Porterville and propagated new varieties and new blooms of iris.
“They were so internationally known and they would get together and compete in the same iris shows,” but never against each other, Edwards said.
The two men were very well acquainted with the Garden Club and gave many of the flowers and plants to different members of the club, he said.
“And that’s why we have so many irises around,” he added.
According to a resolution provided by the city of Porterville, the Porterville City Council adopted the purple iris as the city’s official flower on Jan. 8, 1963.
The resolution reads, “Whereas, the Porterville Chamber of Commerce recommended adoption of the iris as the official flower of the city of Porterville; and whereas, the Porterville Garden Club endorsed the recommendation of the Porterville Chamber of Commerce.”
The resolution is signed by then-mayor Jack E. Letsinger and states all council members, minus one who was absent, voted in favor of the matter.
The designation attracted George Sutton, an iris enthusiast from Ukiah, to Porterville in 1988. Sutton’s Iris Gardens, at 16592 Road 208, is now the world’s leading distributor of re-blooming iris.
Sutton is also credited with having approached the chamber with the idea of establishing an iris festival which began in 1999 with 30 vendors and 2,500 attendees. Unfortuantely, the Suttons and their iris garden are moving to Idaho this summer.
The 16th annual Porterville Iris Festival, set for April 27, will honor the iris’ 50-year anniversary as the city’s official flower. Porterville Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Donnette Carter said she is expecting a record turnout, that means more than 20,000 people and more than 242 vendors hitting the downtown area. Master gardeners will be on-hand to speak about gardening and plants, more specifically, the iris. The city will also offer free shuttle service to and from Sutton’s Iris Gardens where people will have a chance to buy one of the locally famed flowers.