Like a father with his children, Don Heyden is loath to use a superlative when referring to any of the hundreds of iris varieties he grows in three locations in the Gallatin Valley.
“People ask me if I have a favorite,” he said recently, standing amid a huge bed bursting with purple, yellow, white and rusty reddish blooms perched atop slender green stalks. “But when you have more than 500 varieties, you don’t have a favorite.”
But as Heyden walks around his Gallatin Gateway garden flooded with the flowers’ grape-like aroma, it becomes clear Heyden, 70, is more partial to some irises over others.
Like a hardworking father with too many kids — “I don’t want to count,” Heyden said — he can’t remember most of their names.
And with monikers like Magician’s Apprentice, Jamaican Sunset and Glitz ‘N’ Glitter, who can blame him?
That’s why he places numbered stakes in the ground where he plants them. The numbers correspond to the varieties’ names on a four-page spreadsheet that also describes each one’s colors, garden location and price.
Though it’s his “summer, niceweather job,” Heyden makes no money selling the flowers at Bozeman’s Saturday farmers market. Instead, for more than a dozen years, he’s donated his gross sales to various charities — typically between $1,500 and $3,000.
This year he is donating the sales to the Mending in the Mountains program of the Cancer Support Community and to Bozeman Deaconess Hospital’s emergency room expansion. Each year Heyden also donates the “seeds” themselves to various charities to sell, auction or raffle off.
“I feel God gave me a gift of a green thumb, and I felt it was my way to give back without being cash out of my monthly check,” Heyden said. “I’m a giver. That’s how I was raised. It’s just who I am.”
Heyden, who grew up on a farm in northwestern New York, has been growing irises since his age was a single digit. But he’s only been growing them “seriously” for about 40 years, he said.
So seriously, in fact, that when he moved to Bozeman from California, he made a special trip back to the West Coast to fill up a pickup truck with the flowers and their progeny — roots called rhizomes from which the flowers regenerate annually.
“I just fell in love with the flower,” said Heyden, a retired electrical engineer who designed missile systems for the military. “I think it’s the prettiest flower out there and the fact that it has so many varieties. They’re so delicate. Sort of like orchids.”
Now Heyden is active with local garden clubs and the Montana State University Cooperative Extension. In addition to the Gallatin Gateway garden on a friend’s property, he also grows irises in another friend’s field west of Bozeman and in his own south Bozeman yard.
In a denim MSU shirt and cowboy boots, Heyden was reluctant to say how many hours he spends weekly weeding, planting, organizing and otherwise caring for the irises.
“It keeps me in trouble or out of trouble,” he joked, his blue eyes glinting from beneath a white cowboy hat. “In trouble with my wife because it takes so much of my time, but so much time it keeps me out of trouble.”