Monday, February 9, 2015



Collage of historic irises from our garden 

I belong to several groups on Facebook visited by people who like to grow irises.  I have learned a lot from those groups and enjoy the lovely photographs that members post of their irises.  Questions are asked and there is usually someone out there with the correct answer.   One question that was posed and never fully answered to my satisfaction is our topic today:  

 What is the difference between 'Historic’ ‘Heritage’ and ‘Legacy’ Irises? 

The American Iris Society uses the term "Historic" to describe those irises that were introduced 30 or more years ago. Each year there are a whole lot more that fit into that category. Of the 3 terms listed in the question, The American Iris Society has only accepted and defined the term “Historic”. They have not adopted nor defined the term “Heritage"  or "Legacy" Iris. So the terms "Heritage" and "Legacy" are terms used by other iris collectors. In other words if you ask 25 gardeners what "Heritage" and "Legacy" irises are, you might get 25 different answers. I asked a few iris lovers and officials to distinguish between "Historic," "Heritage," and "Legacy" and here is what they said.  

Anne Milner lives in the UK. She has a wonderful web site at This is what she had to say:

I’m afraid I have never heard of ‘Legacy’ irises... though I know that officially ‘Historic’ irises are those over 30 years old – too short a time in my opinion. I’m also not clear about ‘Heritage’ irises. I grow 'Arthur Bliss’ irises which are now nearly 100 years old – definitely ‘Historic’. Very few are available commercially, though I would supply what I can to people in Europe. As you may be aware, cross-Atlantic trade is extremely difficult. "

It appears that the terms "Heritage" and "Legacy" are not in wide use in the UK, from what I have been able to gather.

'Bruno' (Bliss, 1922)
Flowers are large and well proportioned.  

 'Majestic'  (Bliss, 1923)
Enormous flowers.  Very fine form and extra substance.  

My next response came from Laetitia Munro, a committee chairman for HIPS.  HIPS stands for the Historic Iris Preservation Society, so Laetitia is an authority on correct terminology on old irises.  She reports that

"As for the terms you describe,only one term you mention, 'historic', is the one that is officially defined and accepted by HIPS, which would deal with THE official descriptions of older iris. The terms 'legacy' and 'heritage' do not have specific official meanings as far as the Historical Iris Preservation Society goes, although for sure they are meant to describe older iris.
As people have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the use of the term 'historic' for EVERY iris that is over 30 years old the terms traditional and heritage have been bandied about as ways to describe iris that look different from the very old iris, and move the dates of Historic Iris back to pre 50's, or even earlier. However this is just talk at the moment, and because a majority of the Board cannot agree, no decisions have been made. Right now, faced with more pressing issues, there is nothing that the Board of Directors is considering at the moment, and there is no sub-committee to make change recommendations. We will continue to use the term 'historic' to describe iris 30+ years old.  If you read anything on the HIPS website you will see that these other two terms are not used in an official capacity in any formal documents.

If I were to give you my unofficial interpretation,  'traditional' iris might be considered one that is of the newest wave of 'historics', such as American Beauty, Apple Blossom Pink, Twice Blessed.  Heritage iris might be of the next older group such as iris from the 50's, 40's such as Chivalry, Black and Gold, Cahokia and the like."

'American Beauty'  (Shoop, 1985)
photo courtesy of Bluejiris

'Chivalry'  (Wills, 1943) 
Photo courtesy of Bluebird Haven Iris 

"My main 'beef' about the 'historic' designation is that an historic iris from 1980 looks very much like a modern iris from the years post 2000, while those that are older than 1950 do have distinctive form indicative of the earlier times."

The next opinion is from Robert Karr from Newport Naturals Iris, who gives a little history on the issue:

"HIPS tried a few years ago to redefine what 'Historic' meant.  After a lot of discussion, we decided to just leave the definition the same:  any iris introduced into commerce thirty years ago.  We did not try to come up with new classifications such as 'Heritage' or 'Legacy'. Linda and I do not care for such terms, but prefer “Historic”.  It is my impression that the majority of the members of HIPS who took part in the discussion prefer to keep the term “Historic”, and not attempt to use any other terms. What is the difference between “Heritage”, “Historic", and “Legacy” is a subject that would conjure up hundreds of opinions.  I am not sure that it is a viable subject for discussion anymore."

Mike Unser is well respected for his knowledge of historics.  He was the webmaster for HIPS for a number of years, an accomplished photographer, and a writer for this blog. He chimed in with

"Here's my two cents on these terms and how they apply to old irises.
'Historic' is an official designation by the AIS that includes any iris over 30 years old. It is the basis for the Historic Iris Preservation Society, which was founded with the intention of stopping the loss of important old irises and keeping them going for future generations to enjoy.
'Heritage' is defined as 'something that comes or belongs to one by reason of birth; an inherited lot or portion.' I have only seen this used in the iris context by groups or individuals as pertains to varieties of national importance. Such as Terry Johnson's blog Heritage Irises which usually focuses on the work of New Zealand breeders, such as Jean Stevens. He writes of others but I think the NZs are the focus.
'Legacy' has, as one definition, 'anything handed down from the past, as from an ancestor or predecessor.' I would only apply this term to collection of irises that fit a theme, like Anne Bliss' collection of the Arthur Bliss varieties, or the Sarah Cook collection of the Morris varieties. Or an individuals collection of varieties their grandmother grew."  

Mike provided me with 3 beautiful photographs of 'Historics' that he feels should be more widely known and grown.

'Nomohr' (Gibson, 1955) 
(Snow Flurry X Elmohr), HM 1956.
Photo courtesy of Mike Unser.  'Flashing Gem' is on the left and Mike believes that 'Native Chief' is on the right. 

'Mary Barnett' (Cumbler, 1926)
Photo courtesy of Mike Unser

'Maroon Damask'  (Kleinsorge,1945) 
Photo courtesy of Mike Unser
The yellow behind 'Maroon Damask' is 'Goldbeater' the bright pink one is a noid that is going around as 'Ranger.'

I asked Mike where he got all his Historic irises and he said that early on he did a lot of ordering from Superstition, Argyle Acres, a little from Winterberry, and from well-known irisarian Wanda Rezac.  The vast majority came from other collectors and are pretty rare. 'Maroon Damask' came from Winterberry. The other two may become available from The Pickle Barrel House sale or the HIPS sale where he passed them on for propagation and distribution. 

'Historic' is the correct term with an accepted definition. Although many of us may use the terms 'Heritage' and 'Legacy' to mean older irises, there is no official meaning for the terms.

What do you think?  Do we need more descriptive words to denote age or not?  Perhaps just having the year they were introduced is enough?

I would love to hear from you. 

I have loved irises since I was a young mother.  Here I am in a photo from 1974 with my son Zane who is now 41 years old.  I don't know the name of the iris, which was passed down to me from my mother-in-law. I didn't know that I would later feel the names were so important, and today, it drives me crazy that I don't know the name of this iris! Do you have any guesses what it is?  

My heartfelt gratitude to Anne Milner, Laetitia Munro, Robert Karr and Mike Unser.  Thanks so much for your contributions. 


  1. I am troubled by the use of the term"Historic" for every iris older than a certain year. To me a historic iris should be one which was a color break, a real improvement in form, or an iris which proves to be a valuable parent. I really enjoyed the artice.

    1. Thanks. I also appreciate you taking the time to leave a comment.

  2. I'm pretty open-minded on the 'official' designations. I take a tact of seeing a lot of diversity on opinions as a sign of a healthy dialogue on the matter of older irises. That is the most important thing. We are interested in them enough to contemplate them. Matters of art and history are always under debate and that is good.

    I think it would add depth to review the irises themselves, the hybridizing 'break throughs', etc and let that determine interpretive periods. In my mind just talking of certain decade marks is a bit arbitrary. Doesn't say a lot about the history itself. And yep - argue over them!

    I find it interesting to look at websearch indications. 'Antique' and 'old' are the masses favorite search terms. Add those to the ponders.

  3. Thank you for your response. You are right, I was hoping to find people interested enough in iris to ponder them. I don't know if argue was what I was after but certainly discussion. It certainly got me thinking about the terms and searching for answers. Thanks again.

  4. I am looking for "blue flags" but not the water loving type, which my mom had at the front of our house in the 1940s. Heritage, historic? I have no idea.

    1. I will refer you to the Historic Iris Preservation Society's website. I found several blues that are old enough but you really should look at the gallery to see the forms they represent and find which ever one most closely matches your memory. 'Blue Rhythm" is old enough (1945) and 'Blue Danube' in 1940 and 'Blue Shimmer' 1941 but I'm sure there are many others that qualify. Go to their website and have fun looking. I was born in the later half of the 1940"s so I don't remember flags from quite that long ago. I do remember that they called them flags. Thank you so much for reading our AIS blogspot and most particularly reading my post. I appreciate you for reading and responding. Sincerely, Dawn Mumford

  5. I came upon this collective discussion on historic iris and feel I need to comment. I am not going to comment on the three descriptive terms but on the iris form. In some of the discussion there is a mention of pre-50's iris. My observations, and I grow better that 100 pre-1950 iris, is that around the 1950s time frame iris form moved form what I call the "old fashion form" with the globus standards and dog's tongue falls to the modern form of rounded falls, and various degrees of ruffling. If you look at pre-1950 iris you will note that the blossoms before opened come to a point at the tip, which I attribute to the non-ruffled standards and falls. The modern iris blossoms are puckered, again because of the ruffling of standards and falls. I point out to folks that if you are in a garden and see iris blossoms that come to a point you can generally assume that that iris is from before the 1950s. I would like to see the iris become distinguished by their form rather than by some arbitrary date. Doug Chyz,

    1. Thank you Doug,
      I don't grow irises that old so I can't look for the pointed form. How wonderful that you have so many pre-1950 irises. I'm sure that is a beautiful sight. Thanks for your comment. I didn't see it for some time so I apologize for the slow response. Dawn


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