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Mike Tharp: Toiling in a garden of hope

Dave Headrick sits in his iris garden in Merced, Calif. Thursday, April 22, 2010.
SUN STAR PHOTO BY BEA AHBECK Dave Headrick sits in his iris garden in Merced, Calif. Thursday, April 22, 2010. Merced Sun-Star

Dave Headrick peels back the purple petals of an iris. A spring rain is falling on the two-thirds of an acre where he and his wife Loretta grow the flowers.

With a thumbnail, he exposes a pin-thin strip of round yellow seeds, each smaller than the tip of a pencil. With a forefinger, he traces a line circling the inside of the petals. "Pollen," he says, pointing to the tiny golden globes. "You rub it on the lip" -- the line -- "of another flower, and you can cross their characteristics."

It's called hybridization. It's what led Gregor Mendel, the 19th-century European monk, to do the same with pea plants and introduce the science of genetics. It takes 50 days to meld the two flowers' traits -- colors, shape, size -- and two years before a new flower blooms. Out of 50 seeds, 20 may sprout.

And they are a new flower, made from distinctly different plants.

And maybe a metaphor for these two Mercedians' lives.

They've been married 42 years. He forged a career as a teacher at Merced High School and Golden Valley High School for 34 years -- American government, economics, U.S. history. Loretta, born in Merced, has raised three daughters and filled several employment brackets. For awhile, she was a nurse for the women on death row at Chowchilla's Valley State Prison for Women.

The couple met in 1965. The door through which she first caught a glimpse of the man who would become her husband still leans against a wall in their garage.

Like any of us who are married or who have been married, they've ridden ups and downs. Their daughters, Lora Dawn, Rebecca Leavis and Abby Grace, were high points. All three names are now forever attached to three new genera of irises -- and the daughters had to give their written permission, according to the rules of iris societies.

Their low points. ...

Well, let's just say that raising daughters and irises, in that order, have helped them get to Wednesday. That's when Dave, wearing a leather cowboy hat in the rain, looks over at Loretta, holding an umbrella. "You're my inspiration, my helpmate," he says, smiling beneath a silver mustache that looks like Doc's in "Gunsmoke."

Iris. A flower found in Egyptian crypts. Six, seven, eight, nine blooms on one stem. A French king, Clovis, changed his crest to an iris from a toad. In the 12th century, Louis VII painted the flower on his banners for a crusade. The crusade failed, but the flower flourished and became the fleur de lis, symbol of French monarchy for centuries. Today, you can see it on the helmets of the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.

Back to the flower beds just off Yosemite Avenue and Perch Lane. They raise 225 to 250 kinds, and sell about 155 kinds. This weekend marks one of their prime sales times. They sell to folks stopping by -- nine last weekend -- and do a thriving business on the Internet (, Facebook and eBay. They ship to all the lower 48 states, Canada and Europe. People buy rhizomes, which most of us would call bulbs, and a trimmed leaf fan, dug in July and August, when they're dormant.

They caught the iris virus in 1991. Stopped at a restaurant on the way to Gilroy. "They had irises on every table," Loretta, 60, recalls. They bought one. Planted it. Within three years they'd gone commercial. The price depends on how new the iris is, how rare. Today, $35 can get you a bulb with a leaf fan from His Iris Garden. Many growers around the country charge $75 for the same.

These days it's mostly Dave who deals with the irises. Loretta, inspired by the flowers themselves, has branched out into making gemstone jewelry and sculptures. She stands at a table in their living room, weaving beads and glass and wood into bracelets, earrings and necklaces. Moses, their boxer, and Dani, part chow, nudge her with their shoulders for an ear-scratch.

Dave, 63, labors in the field from January to October, out at dawn, back inside by 11 a.m. "before it's hot." He's suffered several strokes, but his palms are calloused and strong from hours digging in the dirt. Irises are "perfect for the Valley," he says because the plants can't stand in water, require six hours of sunlight a day to bloom, have to be weed-free and need space. "You dig the whole field up every summer," he says. "You can even take a nap once in awhile."

You could say growing irises is in their DNA. "His mother and my father loved flowers," Loretta says. "I've been exposed to beautiful flowers all my life."

Consider: there is no red iris. That's because most flowers can produce only two of the primary colors. Iris = yellow and blue -- but not red. Rose = red and yellow -- but not blue. "Bees pollinate a lot better than I do," Dave shrugs. "You can't mix colors that on a paint palette would come up muddy."

Like any of us who are married or who have been married, the Headricks have endured their fair share of storms. But they take their cue from William Faulkner's speech after he won the 1950 Nobel Prize for Literature: "I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail."

Loretta's creative muse "gives me great joy." Dave's garden gives him peace.

"The garden is wonderful, the work is good, we're together, we're helping each other along, we're bearing a heavy burden together," says Loretta.

To do what Dave does every season -- make a new flower -- requires patience, a soft touch, imagination and hope.

That's what truly grows in their garden:

Hope. For that red iris.

We all need a garden now and then.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or