Saturday, March 24, 2012

Iris Classics: 'Romeo'

It is not uncommon for an old iris to have lost its name, nor to find one that is mislabeled, but it is rather uncommon to get the right name back on an iris. Just such a situation happened with this weeks iris classic, "Romeo", a charming creation of the famed French firm Millet et Fils, from 1912. For many years this iris was passed around among iris collectors under the false name of "Phaunauge", an old German variety by the firm of Goos & Koenemann. This error was one of many discovered after the Historic Iris Preservation Society was formed and started verifying identities on historic collections.

A few years after HIPS was founded, Phil Edinger, one of the most knowledgeable persons on the planet when it comes to historic irises, discovered the error. In a 1993 article for the HIPS Bulletin ROOTS he writes:
How many of us grow one labeled Pfauenauge (Goos & Koenemann 1906)? By this name (or its literal translation, "Peacock's Eye"), this distinctive iris has made the rounds among collectors for at least several decades. It was one of my earlier historic acquisitions, and even now it is distinct among the diploids I know because of the prominent and exaggerated purple "shoulders" on the falls.

My confidence in its identity was troubled, though, some years after I had been growing it. One day I came face to face with the cover of the January 1961 AIS Bulletin. There was "Peacock's Eye," sporting a Best-in Show rosette - but the cover caption called it Romeo (Millet et fils 1912). "Well!" I thought: "they must be wrong," or at least 90% wrong. But the 10% doubt forced me to read descriptions of the two irises in the Chronicles for Goos and Koenemann and Millet. And what I found wiped out my 90% certainty of the Pfauenauge/"Peacock's Eye" identification.
After that HIPS members spent many years spreading the word on the mix-up and now you hardly ever see "Phaunauge" listed in the catalogs and collections, while many, many gardeners are enjoying "Romeo".

It was described in the Treholme Gardens catalog for 1928 as:
"S. fine bright lemon-yellow; F. mauve and rich red-violet with throat striped and penciled maroon on white. Similar to Princess Victoria Louise, [sic] but smaller and not reliable." I'd take issue with that designation of unreliable. Perhaps in Maryland it was not so happy but it is still found thriving in many part of the US and Europe. Its persistence says a lot. The slender stems sport numerous small flowers with a great flare and lovely colors, in a dramatic pattern that really catches the eye. It is really fantastic, especially in a clump."

There are countless old diploid irises from the dawn of hybridizing being passed around bereft of their true names. It's something special when one of them can be reunited with its moniker and reintroduced to the iris world for preservation. What a joy it is that the charm of "Romeo" is going to be with us and its story known. Read more about this variety in the article Of Exotic Birds and Tragic Lovers on the HIPS website, and in Clarance Mahan's wonderful book Classic Irises and the Men and Women Who Created Them. The fascinating history of "Romeo" is only surpassed by its beauty in the garden. It's a classic.


  1. Truly a classic whatever you call it. It is one of the most striking irises we grow - and that's a lot. Is its parentage known? I have heard people talk of I. variegata being one parent, though it doesn't immediately resemble that iris.

  2. Bob, I've never run across mention of its parentage and the checklist doesn't list it either. I would not be surprised if i. vareigata is in its background.


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