Authentication of Iris Cultivars

by Arthur O. Tucker, DE

iris queen of may

Queen of May Hm-m-m! Is the name correct? Hm-m-m, I wondered. I had tried to obtain the same cultivar from multiple sources to check identifications, and I now found myself with two entirely different clumps of Queen of May. Which was the “true” Queen of May, and what the devil was the other clump? Hm-m-m….

My immediate impulse was to seek some collections that claim to be correctly labelled. From my experiences with heritage roses, though, I knew that this was not the final answer. Many rather reputable collections have totally mislabelled roses. The ultimate resource with roses (and irises) is the period description, preferably by the hybridizer. Thus, I have been collecting period literature to authenticate my antique irises. Below are some sources that I have found valuable. Do you have others that you can recommend?

(1) The 1929-1979 A.I.S. Checklists are, of course invaluable. The novice should be aware that these were monumental works, and mistakes are bound to occur in any Herculean task. The confusion of Kaleidoscope vs. Joseph’s Coat in the 1939 Checklist comes to mind. Also, the verbal translation of “Y3D” to the colors of Loreley is well nigh impossible.

(2) Period catalogs are the most valuable resource. To date I have found the following to be worth their weight in Aurea: Cooley’s Garden (Silverton, OR, 1936), Farr Nursery Co. (Weiser Park, PA, 1931), Indian Spring Farms (Baldwinville, NY, 1928), Quality Gardens (Freeport, IL, 1929), and Carl Salbach (Berkeley, CA, 1931). My general seed and bulb catalogs of the period also have some good colorpictures. The Checklists and period catalogs have allowed me to formulate a consensus of Loreley (Goos & Koenemann, c. 1909) as follows: This midseason tall-bearded iris bears fragrant flowers in greatest profusion on strong, erect and high-branched stems. Standards are Martius yellow, frequently splashed with the purple of the falls. Falls are raisin-purple, margined canary-yellow, marked at the haft with purple reticulations on a white ground. Foliage is blue-green, tinged purple at the base.” Note that Loreley in the 1939 Checklist is listed as a TB, yet we would now classify it as an IB. Would someone please write a history of the classification of iris?
cornell extension bulletin 112
(3) Period books with photographs, such as J. Marion Shull’s Rainbow Fragments (1931) and Austin W. W. Sand’s Bearded Iris (Cornell Extension Bulletin 112, 1925) [available in the HIPS Shoppe], are also great! Shull provides very detailed descriptions on a number of cultivars. I also have an unpublished copy of John C. Wister’s Swarthmore Plant Notes dated 1957 with many abbreviated descriptions and performance records of cultivars at Swarthmore.

(4) Have any ROOTS readers run across Les Iris Cultivés, published by the Société National d’ Horticulture de France, Commission des Iris, 1923? All of the authors are historically important, but most of the articles are in French (by Vilmorin, Krelage, Dykes, Mottet, Guillaumin). A few (lay Bliss, Sturtevant, Yeld, and Ricketts) are in English. Especially interesting is Krelage’s article “Histoire et Dévelopement des Iris des Jardins,” with synopses of important cultivars and their hybridizers. Many tidbits of information are tucked in here and there. For example, under Gracchus, in Vilormin’s “La Collection des Aquarelles d’Iris,” he states “Une plante de I’Iris variegata type provenant de Sésarmont et recue de M. Denis, s’est montrée identique.” [Translated: A plant of standard I. variegata coming from Sésarmont and (recue?) of Mr. Denis, was identical.] A few black and white photographs are included. The unfortunate thing about this volume is the printing on paper that must have been close to newspaper stock; the pages are now very yellow and very brittle. I vote to reprint this ASAP. I know of one copy at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

(5) The Iris Chronicles are another resource. I still do not have a full run, and no index was ever published, so this is for reading during long winter evenings. [Note: all chronicles are now accounted for and available from the HIPS Shoppe – Mike]

(6) Wisley trials, published in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society, give extreme details on a number of cultivars. I use two: the 1925-27 trials (J.R.H.S. 53:116-160, 1928) and the 1928-29 trials (J.R.H.S. 55:132-140,1930). These allowed me to further refine my period description of Pocohantas (Farr, 1915) as follows: “This scented midseason intermediate-bearded iris has very large, orchid-like flowers of plicata coloring with elegantly frilled petals. Standards are rather cupped, circular, 1.75″, white with a solid border of deep lilac-purple, the same color as the styles. Falls are white, feathered at the margin with lilac, 1.5×1.75″, drooping. Crest is deep lavender; beard is white, tipped orange. Stalks are well-branched to 30” with 4-5 flowers.

The descriptions of color may be confusing, so the accomplished irisarian is well-advised to purchase the R.H.S. Colour Chart, available through A.I.S. We just published a survey of color charts (Taxon 40:201-214, 1991) and came to the conclusion that the second edition (c. 1986) of the R.H.S. Colour Chart with the tabulated cross-index of colors from the first edition (1966) is the best of all existing color charts. Some other color charts, such as A. Maerz and M. R. Paul’s A Dictionary of Color (1930, 1950), also provide good histories of color names.

Already I have found that about a quarter of my collection is incorrectly labelled, in spite of some rather reputable sources. What about my two clumps of Queen of May (Salter, pre-1859)? Well, with a period photograph plus the following description, I was able to pin down one as possibly correct; “This midseason tall-bearded iris has arched standards and drooping falls, both soft rose to lizeran-purple, shaded to white at the haft with reticulations of magenta. Foliage is glaucous light green. Growth is vigorous, with short- and high-branched stalks to 30″.”

“Now I wonder if my other clump is actually Greater May Queen (Weed, 1923). Or is it Queen of May? Hm-m-m!

~ Reprinted from ROOTS, Vol 4, Issue 2, Fall 1991.