Monday, June 15, 2015

An Iris by Any Other Name

by Tom Waters

'Catchy Name' (Seligmann, 1983)
One of the things you may notice about serious iris enthusiasts (sometimes known as “irisarians”), as opposed to gardeners who casually grow a few, is an obsession with names. We go around earnestly correcting the names of irises people share on line or in person, sometimes even to the point of calling out minor spelling errors.

What is this about? Surely the flower’s loveliness and welcome presence in our gardens doesn’t depend on its name. Why is it so important to some of us enthusiasts?

It’s one of those things that most of us get very much indoctrinated about, early on in the learning process, as the iris hobby becomes more and more serious. It’s been part of iris culture for generations.

At one time, you see, names were in a state of chaos. The same plant would be passed around under any number of different names, and similar plants were sold or shared under the same name. Names would be casually translated from one language to another, with no one quite sure if they were meant to refer to the same plant or not. One of the first goals of the American Iris Society in the 1920s was to try to straighten out the confusion, by carefully documenting names from old magazine articles and catalogs and compiling a checklist. The American Iris Society is the international registration authority for all irises except those that grow from bulbs (like Dutch Iris and reticulatas). Ideally, every name is registered with the AIS along with a careful description before the iris it belongs to is sold or shared.

Iris pallida variegata, sometimes grown under the incorrect name "Zebra"
Without this care, the names become practically meaningless, and one cannot reliably purchase a particular cultivar or discuss its qualities with other growers.

This is especially important because so many irises resemble others, at least at first glance. Casual gardeners may be inclined to think that all pink irises are the same, or that the one they just bought from a garden center is “the same iris” grandma grew years ago, because they are both purple.

Any time an iris is sold or shared under an incorrect name, it makes headaches for those further down the line who want to know which iris they actually have.

Irises whose names are unknown are these days often called “noids” (for “no ID”). The term is cute and memorable, but alas it’s too close to the name of a well-known hybridizer of some decades past, Luella Noyd, so I prefer to avoid it. I’ve also seen them spoken of as UFOs (unidentified flowering objects).
The Internet has taken the problem of identifying irises to a whole new level. It has made it 100 times easier to get information on any subject, but 10,000 easier to get bad information on any subject, it seems. Every day, people post photos of irises asking for the name, and often just accept the first answer someone throws out. That can be worse than having no answer at all!

Very few irises are so distinctive that they can be unambiguously identified at a glance from a single photo. The only way to check a tentative identification is to acquire the true plant from a reliable source and grow it alongside your own. They should be identical in detail.

BB 'Oops' (Craig, 2003)
So what is a “reliable source”? The “big box” stores are notorious in selling mislabeled irises. Local garden centers are better, but still make quite a few mistakes. Iris sellers on Ebay are all over the map in terms of reliability. Your best bet is to stick to sellers who specialize in irises. Even that is not foolproof. A few years ago, I ordered the iris ‘Orange Crush’ from an iris grower with impeccable credentials. When it bloomed, it was not even the right color! I wrote to him and inquired about it. It turns out he grows his plants in alphabetical order, and the one I got was the previous one in the alphabet. Its name? ‘Oops’. That gave us a chuckle.

Some name confusions have been going on for so long that it can be quite difficult to sort them out. When I started growing irises in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in the 1970s, a number of local growers had a historic iris ‘Mme. Chereau’. We all loved it, not least because it had been around since 1844! It turned out the plant we were all growing was actually an even older cultivar, ‘Swerti’. But because we had all seen it in each others’ gardens, we “knew” it was ‘Mme. Chereau’.  A photo of the impostor even made it into the American Iris Society book, The World of Irises, showing how difficult it can be to be sure of identifications, even on the best authority.
'Mme. Chereau' (Lemon, 1844)
photo: Mike Starhill
Aware of this long-standing confusion, I resolved a couple years ago to grow these two irises in my garden and familiarize myself with their differences. Ironically, the ‘Mme. Chereau’ I acquired to make the comparison turned out to be – you guessed it! – ‘Swerti’.

A word of caution: The on-line Iris Encyclopedia, although hosted by the American Iris Society, is (like Wikipedia) maintained by users, and is not authoritative. The entries for some irises have incorrect photos.

For older irises, the Historic Iris Preservation Society is the best source of identification expertise. HIPS is home to experts who have made identification of older cultivars into a passion, delving into the subject with persistence and dedication, unearthing old photographs, documents, and descriptions. There are some confusions so old and entrenched, however, that even the experts can hold different views. Some irises have had whole articles and book chapters written about them, as researchers struggle to sort out their identity.

But you don’t have to be an expert to help with the problem of misidentified irises. Anyone can help by following one simple rule: don’t pass an iris around unless you are sure it is correctly named. If it came to you without a name, this will often mean growing the real thing side by side with your orphan. Even passing an iris on saying that you don’t know its name is not a good idea. Inevitably, someone down the line will be growing it and decide they “know” what it is anyway!

A second bit of advice: Don’t become indignant or defensive when someone tells you your iris is misidentified. It’s not a criticism, it’s a gift of better information than you had before! A thank-you is the appropriate response.

unidentified yellow TB
Some growers just destroy anything they are not sure of. That’s one way solve the problem, but sometimes an unidentified iris just pleads with you to give it a home. When we moved into our present house, there were some irises growing on the property. They turned out to be a yellow tall bearded, apparently of mid-twentieth-century vintage. They outperform almost everything else I grow, with tall stalks, clear color, and a long period of bloom. It’s hard to say good-bye to one of the best irises you have! I suspect this iris is the classic variety ‘Ola Kala’, but I will not share it under that name until such time as it passes the side-by-side test.


  1. I loved this article and I appreciate your common sense about this matter. Thank you for your time and effort.

  2. How do I find the name of a particular Iris by using a picture? Thank you

  3. Great article! Thanks for sharing. I have grown iris my whole married life. All I cared about was getting a variety. I tried to find someone to share a peach colored iris. Never did, that’s when I found the iris sights. And yes I bought over 60 varieties last year. I am hoping they all grow and become as beautiful as the pictures. I did label them all. Now I’m ai

  4. Interesting article, I enjoy putting names to NOIDs ( I've managed to do it maybe half a dozen times). I collect Ferdinand Cayeux's irises, and like knowing the history of names- whom or what Ferdinand named an iris for.

  5. Speaking of imposters, I could swear I've recently seen Minnesota Mixed-Up Kid under another name. I should have saved the ad. I wouldn't know which came first, especially since it appears to have been a lovely accident of nature.


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