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Rural Missouri Magazine

Growing a rainbow
With his iris garden, Dave Murphy
cultivates
more than just beautiful blooms

by Jason Jenkins
During the past 10 years, Dave Murphy and his wife, Bernice, have collected more than 1,000 varieties of iris, which he grows at his rural Texas County home.

In Greek mythology, Iris, the goddess of the rainbow, delivered messages between the gods on Mount Olympia and humans on Earth. Like the goddess, Dave Murphy uses irises to deliver a message.

At his Texas County home west of Licking, he raises more than 1,000 varieties of iris and each year, the rainbow of blooms — painted in every hue imaginable — helps him spread a message of hope and love to his neighbors.

For the past three years, Dave and his wife of 54 years, Bernice, have visited the residents of the long-term nursing care facility in Licking on Mother’s Day weekend. Before they end their visit, each lady receives a cut iris in a bud vase, and more importantly, everyone receives a little bit of conversation.

“Those old people, it gives them a real thrill,” says Dave, who’s 77 himself. “I’ve given presents to people before, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the appreciation that I’ve seen in the eyes of those people.”

"Cordoba"

The Murphys’ visits to the local nursing homes began several years ago when a friend moved to the facility in Licking. It was then that Dave saw the impact a little chat could have on someone.

“Mostly, I think they just want to talk to somebody,” he says. “Golly, you can get awful lonesome in a crowd. If people don’t come in and visit these people, they just waste away.”

Mitchell Fall, administrator at the Licking Park Manor, says the Murphys’ visits, especially their special Mother’s Day visits, don’t go unnoticed.

“When family members or friends take the initiative to do things for our residents, it means a lot,” he says. “For those who otherwise wouldn’t have someone to visit them and share stories, it really means a lot.

“We don’t have nearly enough people who do that and volunteer the time out of their days.”

Although the Mother’s Day tradition is relatively new, Dave’s iris collection has grown steadily for about 10 years. It was a hobby he and a friend, the late Chuck Ernst of Dixon, started together.

Dave and Bernice gather a vase of cut flowers for delivery to nearby senior nursing care facility.

“We’d go down to this plant sale together every year and buy a few, then we’d buy a few more,” Dave recalls. “It just kept growing.”

He says they concentrated on raising irises because “it’s a pretty flower all the way around,” and one that only needs a nominal amount of care. “They’re a really beautiful flower. Every one of these flowers is just a little bit different.”

While he doesn’t propagate new iris varieties, he’s always on the lookout for the latest trends.

“I’ll get a catalog or see an ad in the paper for one that catches my eye, and if I don’t have it already, I’ll go buy it,” Dave says. “The new varieties come pretty high, but after five years or so they’re pretty accessible and pretty cheap.

Dave Murphy’s irises have been slow to bloom following the freeze that struck Missouri in early April.

“Everybody wants the new ones. I’ll probably buy 10 to 15 this year sometime when they quit blooming. That’s how I get so many.”

Last year, with the help of a friend, Laura Lewis, who helps with weeding duties and cataloging, the Murphys surpassed 1,000 varieties.

“We were at 946, and I said, ‘Let’s go for a 1,000,’” Dave says. “Now we have more than a 1,000 and every one blooms true to what it’s supposed to be, although there may be one or two duplicates. Clerical errors, you know.”

Although Dave says that irises deal with drought better than any flower he’s seen, he says they don’t do well in saturated soils.

“They don’t like to get their feet wet,” explains the Intercounty Electric Cooperative member. “So you have to get them up on a rise or a slope. I think that’s the only thing that affects them is wet feet.”

This year, an unseasonable freeze in early April also affected Dave’s irises, as it did with many flowering plants across Missouri.

"Sunkist Delight"

“I came out here and they were all lying on the ground,” he says. “It was the first time we’d really been hit with a freeze, and I was so sick about it. But they’re going to make it. They’ll bloom; it’ll just be a little later, that’s all.”

As a result of the April freeze, Dave and Bernice were only able to take irises to the ladies at one home this year.

Most of Dave’s irises bloom in the spring, but his collection also includes 20 to 30 fall-blooming varieties. He also has a few that bloom twice. With so many varieties, styles and colors, you’d still expect Dave to have a favorite iris, but that’s not the case.

“I’ll tell you, that’s one thing you can’t do,” he says, admitting that he’s partial to the light-blue varieties including “Song of Norway.” “You can’t pick out an absolute favorite. You’ll think you have it, but as another one blooms, then that’ll be your favorite, then another and another. It’s just impossible.”

With names such as “Evening Magic,” “Taco Supreme,” “Gypsy Monarch” and “Sunkist Delight,” you might assume that every color in the jumbo box of crayons has been accounted for in the Murphy’s iris garden, but there’s one color still missing.

“You do get some oddball names, that’s for sure, but I’m hoping to someday find a red one,” Dave says. “They haven’t bred one yet, but I’m going to jump on it as soon as I find it.”

Dave and Bernice have lived in Texas County on their 43-acre homestead since 1982 when Dave retired from the Chrysler plant in Fenton after 24 years of service as a repairman. A Navy veteran, he served four years as a gunnery fire controlman during the Korean War.

Bernice Murphy, right, delivers a vase of freshly cut irises to Becky Wolfe, administrative assistant at Licking Park Manor. Bernice and her husband, Dave, have shared cut irises with the ladies of the a long-term nursing care facility for the past three years on Mother’s Day weekend.

“We had lived in Los Angeles, then I was transferred to St. Louis after an earthquake closed the plant in California,” Dave says. “We settled here because I wanted to get out in the country like where I was born and raised in Oklahoma and Texas.

“We really love it here. We have great neighbors, the best in the world. They don’t bother you until you need some help, and then they’re right there.”

Last year following knee replacement surgery, Dave suffered a series of three strokes. While it’s slowed him down some this spring and put him a little behind on weeding his gardens, he’s still prepared to share his irises with anyone at any time.

“I’m doing pretty well, considering,” Dave says. “Parts wear out, and this was the first major problem I’ve had, so I’ve been lucky. It’s been a good life.”

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