Monday, May 16, 2011

The Name Is the Game

Someone once said that you have to grow a thousand irises to get one worthy of introduction --- and that may be true. And after you’ve dug, amended, fertilized, weeded, made the crosses, harvested and planted the seeds, waited a year or two for first bloom, then 3 or 4 years for evaluation (spraying and weeding all the while), finally, it stands before you -- the epitome of beauty (remembering, of course, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder), a flower worthy of introduction -- well, at least, of registration. THIS HAS BEEN THE EASY PART. Now comes the really hard part: NAMING IT. You are up against 64,000 competitors. That’s the approximate number of named irises as of today. Your challenge is to find a name that hasn’t been taken already. This used to mean combing through the printed iris registers since 1939. For a while, it seemed that all of the great names had been taken by the 1950s. Now, thanks to John I. Jones and others who toiled on it without recompense, we have the online iris register, where we can learn that the name we want to put on our iris was taken by someone else just 2 years ago! Aarrgh!
The trick, of course, is to find a name so distinctive that no one else has thought of it, like, for instance, ‘Dolly Varden’, a colorful species of trout. Who else would think of naming an iris after a fish, eh? Sorry, the name was taken in 1929!
Ah, well, we’ll get really specific. Here’s an SDB seedling with flame-red falls topped by glowing yellow standards. Honoring its hybridizer’s roots in Indiana, we’ll call it ‘Hoosier Hot Shots’, after the zany Hoosier band of the 1940s that featured washboards, kettles and God knows what else among its instruments. Passes the Iris Register in a breeze. Nobody remembers that, huh? Oops -- the U.S. Copyright Office does! Scratch that! We settle for ‘Hotspur’. (Thanks, Will Shakespeare (pre-Copyright Office!)) For similar reasons, forget ‘Hedy Lamarr’.
Fortunately, this frustrating game has referees: Our AIS Registrars, past and present. Both Mike Lowe, the current Registrar, and Keith Keppel, his immediate predecessor, are widely read -- and not just in the world of irises. Imagine my delight when, after I submitted the name ‘Bulbul Ameer’ for a burly red iris, Keith Keppel wrote back, “Can Ivan Skavinsky Skivar be far behind?” The names refer to the antagonists in a rollicking pub song of the Russo-Turkish wars composed by Percy French when he was a student at Trinity College in Dublin in the 1870s. You all remember that, right? (You can find a really great animated adaptation of this ballad at, which you mustn’t miss. It’s called “Ye Ballade of Ivan Petrovsky Skivar” -- I have no idea of why the middle name is changed -- (the Copyright Office?) -- and you can also find other period renditions of this work at the same site.)
The down side of referees, of course, is that their calls are final. When you register an iris, you list your first choice of names and your second choice. The Registrar will decide which name goes on your iris. A fatal error is assuming that your first choice will be selected, and, because of that, putting down just any old name as your second choice. Thus, your new, breakthrough red seedling, instead of being named ‘Scarlet Letter’, debuts as ‘Maggie’s Drawers’! Aarrgh!
In fact, our Registrars go to great lengths to accommodate us, while guarding the integrity of the register. When I first submitted ‘Alleluia’, so named because of its Lenten colors and blooming at Eastertide, Keith responded that it was too close to ‘Hallelujah’, a name already taken. I argued that it was spelled differently and pronounced differently. In the end, Keith accepted the reasoning and my seedling was registered and introduced as ‘Alleluia’.

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