Montclair is known for many great things: good food, wonderful people, and older houses — and there’s even more here than just that. One of our most famous and historic spots is The Presby Iris Gardens, where a rainbow of irises blossoms for the whole of Essex County to enjoy. Now is the best time to visit because the gardens are currently in peak bloom — and June 3rd is the last day you can visit. Continue reading to find out more about The Presby Iris Gardens, located at 474 Upper Mountain Avenue in Montclair.
The Gardens at Presby entwines into the history of Montclair, its active citizens, and its early cultural art scene. Frank H. Presby was an avid iris hybridizer, founder of the American Iris Society, and a Montclair local. As a passionate iris collector, Frank owned a massive collection of unique specimens from all over the world. Toward the end of his life, it was his wish to find a place for them within Montclair in the newly acquired Mountainside Park. Unfortunately, he could not accomplish this mission before his death in 1924.
In 1927, Miss Katherine Inness, the first curator of the Montclair Art Museum, picked up Frank’s torch. She created and proposed a plan to establish an iris garden as a memorial to Frank Presby and his passion for the flowers. It was her goal that the garden function as both a memorial and a place of learning, hoping to encourage visitors into the town to view the blooming displays of irises. The Montclair Town Council, Parks Commission, Garden Club of Montclair, and the American Iris Society came together to make the iris garden a reality.
Hundreds of people arrived at the opening of the gardens, many bringing iris rhizomes from their own collections. Frank’s children naturally gave the first plants, while others were donated from the American Iris Society, the Kellogg Gardens, and even from Great Britain, Germany, and Japan. At the time, the president of the American Iris Society laid out the garden design and helped supervise the plantings. Joseph Van Vleck, a fixture in Montclair society at the time, donated his rare Iris Sibirica to the gardens. The gardens were cared for and managed by the Citizens Committee, and the house of dedicated volunteer Barbara Walther became the committee headquarters.
Through the years, various bridges have been added to encourage different views of the flowers and a sprinkler system to maintain moisture for the plants. In 2009, the property was purchased by Essex County in hopes of preserving the collection for many generations.
Rows of thousands of unique irises inspire visitors and artists alike. Photographers wake up early to shoot the bearded blooms at dawn, while watercolorists and local painters love afternoons. Children can enjoy the open air and colors while the adults find their favorite deep purple blossoms. The Presby Iris Gardens are an event each spring to be savored and enjoyed by everyone. With over twenty beds, there is room for everyone to enjoy the colorful scene.
Iris Gardens contain over 14,000 irises in 3,000 different varieties, culminating in 100,000 blooms over a season. The main iris bloom occurs from mid-May to June and is referred to as the ‘rainbow on the hill.’ There is nothing quite like the Presby Iris Gardens in full bloom, which surprisingly doesn’t happen every year. Depending on the spring climate, the bloom can vary quite significantly. This year — the 95th season — the gardens are in peak bloom, and the last day to visit is June 3rd.
The Presby Iris Gardens | 474 Upper Mountain Avenue
The gardens are open from dusk to dawn every day and are available to everyone. There is no admission fee, but Presby depends on donations to keep the gardens going. The suggested donation is $10, and there is a small, locked box at the entrance for donations. Parking is along Upper Mountain Avenue. There are no restaurants, but Presby Iris Gardens sometimes offers coffee and snacks from a local coffee shop on weekends. Visitors are asked to follow garden etiquette and not step in beds, trample flowers, or touch and cut blooms. The property is a historic garden, and many flowers are one-of-a-kind. Volunteering and donations are always welcome.
The Bloom Room gift shop sells cute iris-themed objects and art pieces. It’s open Tuesday-Sunday, 11AM – 3PM during blooming season.