Monday, November 30, 2015

Understanding Iris Descriptions

by Tom Waters

If you've spent some time looking for information about particular irises, you've probably encountered something like this, which I've copied from the American Iris Society (AIS) online Iris Encyclopedia:
'Montmartre' Keith Keppel, R. 2007). Seedling 01-49B. TB, 33" (84 cm), Early thru midseason bloom. Standards greyed red-purple (M&P 45-J-5), 1/4" straw yellow (10-F-2) edge; style arms straw to reed yellow (10-I-1), midrib flushed red purple; Falls velvety dark red purple, darker and brighter than raisin purple (54-B-12), narrow oyster white (10-B-1) edge, inner haft lemon (9-L-2), white around beard; beards chrome yellow (9-L-7), white and lemon at end. 99-61A: (96-11D, sibling to 'Moonlit Water' x 'New Leaf') X 'High Master'. Keppel 2008. Honorable Mention 2010, Award of Merit 2012Wister Medal 2014.
Most of this text is from the official description of the variety as published by the AIS. The information is presented in a standardized order and format. Even unofficial descriptions, as you might find in catalogs or other publications, tend to follow this format to some extent, although usually somewhat simplified.

This is a rather intimidating mass of text for the novice iris enthusiast to process. In this post, I will step through it all one piece at a time, explaining what it all means and sharing some interesting background information along the way.

The first portion is this: "'Montmartre' Keith Keppel, R. 2007)." 'Montmartre' is the name of the iris; Keith Keppel is the person who created it, and 2007 is the year it was registered ("R.") with the AIS.

Registration is the process by which a new iris is assigned a unique name. Why is this necessary? Can't the person who breeds a new iris just call it whatever he or she feels like? That was essentially the state of affairs in the nineteenth century, when nursery businesses devoted to ornamental plants were coming into their own. The result was a great deal of confusion. Different plants were being sold under the same name, and some plants were being sold under more than one name. Furthermore, plants were sometimes given names that looked like botanical names but were not. The bring order out of chaos, an international system for naming cultivated plants was created. This is the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (ICNCP). The code includes rules about what form a name may take (it can't look like a botanical species name, for example, cannot be excessively long, or be just a descriptive word like "yellow"). For many types of ornamental plants, the ICNCP rules are implemented through a designated International Cultivar Registration Authority. For all irises except those that grow from bulbs, the registration authority is the AIS. So it is the role of the AIS to ensure that new irises are named according to the rules, and that each name is officially assigned to a single particular cultivar.

(The world "cultivar", coined from the phrase "cultivated variety", is the technically correct term for a unique plant. Although the term "variety" is often used, that word has a different meaning to botanists.)

Cultivar names are enclosed in single quotes, according to the ICNCP. There was an older practice of printing iris cultivar names in capitals, which you may still encounter from time to time.

So 'Montmartre' was registered with the AIS by Keith Keppel, the hybridizer who created it, in 2007. The person who registers an iris is usually the hybridizer who made the cross that produced it, but this is not always the case. One can register a particular or distinctive form of an iris species found in the wild or raised from collected seed with no deliberate cross-pollination involved. In this case, the person who registers the cultivar is just the person who has grown the plant and decided it should be named. It also sometimes happens that one person selects the plant to be registered, even though the cross that produced it was made by someone else. For example, 'Brown Lasso' resulted from a cross made by Gene Buckles, whose seedlings were passed on to David Niswonger when he died. So it was Niswonger who registered 'Brown Lasso' on behalf of the deceased hybridizer. The registration for this iris reads as follows:
'Brown Lasso' ( Eugene Buckles by David Niswonger, selector. R. 1972).
There is no requirement that the person who made the original cross be acknowledged in this fashion, but it is a commonly observed courtesy. 

It also sometimes happens that an iris has been in circulation for many years, without ever being registered, and an iris society or knowledgeable individual may step in and register it, so that its name can be officially recorded with a proper description.

I sometimes encounter people who are under the impression that registration somehow implies that the iris is deemed worthy by the AIS, or "approved" to be sold. This is not the case. The AIS does not make any judgment on the merits of the cultivars that are registered. The sole purpose of registration is simply to officially assign a name to a cultivar.

The next part of the description of 'Montmartre' is
Seedling 01-49B. TB, 33" (84 cm), Early thru midseason bloom.
First comes the hybridizer's seedling number. Hybridizers usually raise so many seedlings that they use numbers to keep track of them until a few are selected to be named. There is no standard format for numbering seedlings; each hybridizer has his or her own system. Why is this number included in the official description? It seems superfluous once a name has been chosen. One reason is that the iris may have been used for breeding, and referred to by number in a pedigree, before being registered. It also helps people in the future interpret the hybridizer's breeding records. Furthermore, the iris may have been grown and seen under its seedling number, for example at an iris convention, and this lets everyone know that this new iris is the same one they admired (or detested) when they saw it earlier.

TB stands for "tall bearded". Each class of iris has its own abbreviation. Next follows the height in inches and centimeters. The height of an iris can vary considerably, even in one garden, and much more so if grown in different climates and soils. So the height figure is best taken with a grain of salt.

Next comes the season of bloom ("Early through midseason"). You may also see the bloom season expressed in abbreviations: E-M, in this example. Bloom season is not referred to calendar dates, because that changes enormously from one climate to another, and even from year to year. Rather, it is expressed relative to other irises of the same type. So in this case, we know that 'Montmartre' starts blooming somewhat earlier than most TBs and continues blooming into the middle of TB season. These designations are always relative to the type of iris involved, so a standard dwarf bearded (SDB) iris with midseason bloom means it blooms in the middle of SDB season, even though this may be a month or so before TBs bloom.

Next comes the color description, which is often the longest part. The standards (upper petals) are described first, followed by the falls (lower petals, which technically are sepals). In this particular description, you will notice alphanumeric codes being used to describe the colors. There are a number of different color charts published by various individuals and organizations to help identify colors more precisely than common language can do. In this case, the system being used is that of Maerz and Paul (note the "M&P" given the first time a code appears in the description). Other color systems often encountered are RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) and Ridgeway. If you have access to the specified published color chart, you can consult it to see precisely which colors are referred to in the description. There is an important caveat, though: colors can vary depending on soil and weather and the age of the bloom. So the precision implied by using a color chart is somewhat illusory.

The M&P color system used in this description also assigns English names to colors, and these are used in the description ("reed yellow", "raisin purple", and so on). These sometimes strike me as rather too fanciful to be useful without consulting the color chart, but they can convey some general distinctions. (I think we all have a sense of how straw yellow differs from lemon yellow, for example).

One is not required to use a published color chart when describing an iris, and many hybridizers do not. In recent years, the AIS has been collecting photographs along with the registration descriptions, which is a wonderful development. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words. A photograph is not required, however, just encouraged.

At the end of the description comes the parentage, or pedigree, of the iris. The pod parent is given first, then a large X, then the pollen parent. These may be named cultivars, or seedlings identified by number, parentage, or both. The parentage can sometimes be dauntingly complex if the hybridizer has been using their own seedlings for many generations.

Let's untangle this particular parentage, which is fairly easy as such things go. First look for the large X that separates the two parents. We can see right away that the pollen parent is 'High Master'. What about the pod parent? It is this:
99-61A: (96-11D, sibling to 'Moonlit Water' x 'New Leaf')
The pod parent is a seedling numbered 99-61A. (Since no other hybridizer is indicated, this is one of Keith Keppel's own seedlings.) That seedling's parentage is given inside the parentheses, after the colon. Its pollen parent is 'New Leaf' and its pod parent is another seedling, 96-11D, which we are told is a sibling to 'Moonlit Water'. So if we want to know that seedling's parentage, we can look in the description of 'Moonlit Water' (siblings have the same parentage, by definition.) Why refer to it that way? Why not just give its parentage? In this case, it is an enormous space saver. Look up the parentage of 'Moonlit Water' and you'll see what I mean!

Sometimes you will see a description that says "parentage unknown", or lists a pollen parent as unknown. When the pollen parent is unknown, it could be that the cross was made by insects, rather than the hybridizer. (These are often referred to as "bee pods".) This is not always the case, however. Particularly when the entire parentage is unknown, it is likely to be a case of an intentional cross with lost of confused records.

Following the parentage, we see "Keppel 2008". What is this? We already saw at the beginning that the iris was registered by Keppel in 2007. This last bit of information is the record of introduction. "Introduction" is short for "introduced into commerce" and refers to when and by whom the iris was first offered for sale to the public. In this case, Keith Keppel sells his irises himself, so we just see his name and the year 2008. It is rather common for an iris to be registered in one year and first offered for sale in the following year, although the gap can be longer, or an iris can be introduced the same year it is registered. If the iris were introduced by a commercial garden, it is the name of the garden that is used. For example, Mid-America Garden introduces irises bred by Paul Black and Thomas Johnson.

Why is introduction important? One reason is that where and when an iris is introduced determines its eligibility for AIS awards. (AIS awards are given only to cultivars introduced in North America, and the year of introduction determines when an iris becomes eligible for awards. The AIS does not recognize an iris as having been introduced until the person who registered it sends evidence of introduction to the registrar.

In fact, the year of introduction is so important that when an iris is referred to in text, the hybridizer and year of introduction are often given in parentheses following the name: 'Montmartre' (Keppel, 2008).

Can an iris be registered and not introduced? Indeed. Registration, remember, is just the official assignment of the name to the plant; it does not imply anything about whether the iris should or will be offered for sale. The hybridizer might lose the plant, decide not to sell it, or be unable to sell it for some reason.

Conversely, there are irises (mostly older ones) that have been introduced into commerce but never registered. The ICNCP is not a legally binding set of rules, nor does the AIS have any legal standing to require irises to be registered before they are sold (although an iris must be properly registered to be eligible for AIS awards). So there have been iris hybridizers (mostly in past eras, and mostly working outside the US) who did not bother with registering their creations before selling them.

Finally, at the very end, is a list of the awards the iris has received: in this case, Honorable Mention, Award of Merit, and the Wister Medal.

I hope this post has given some insight into the nuances and complexities of iris descriptions. If you have any questions, please ask in the comments below, and I will do my best to answer!


  1. Thank you Tom. This article was very helpful. I had never heard anything about the color chart and can see how valuable that could be in describing an iris for registration or introduction.

  2. I'm glad you found it helpful Dawn!

  3. Thanks, Tom--I enjoyed your article. It was very informative!

  4. Brilliant, as usual when you get busy with your keyboard!

  5. This article was so informative. Thank you for straightening this all out for me.


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