“Please Name Me!”

by Mike Lowe, VA

iris clip artWhat do you do when a box of unknown iris, tagged with a note pleading for identification, is delivered to your doorstep like a basket of abandoned kittens?

Keep your cool; don’t savage the UPS driver – its not his fault. You had sufficient hubris to allow your wretched scrivening to appear in ROOTS? You should welcome the obligations that go with public acclaim as an expert – right? Be of good cheer, accept the implied compliment along with the box of rhizomes, grit your teeth and stuff them into the ground. We’re talking long term commitment, here. It will be at least a year, possibly two before you see bloom and your benefactor expects your best effort at identification.

The odds are good that many of the rhizomes you received could be labeled, “the confusing two-toned violets.” I would wager that 90% of iris before 1940 had medium violet standards atop deeper violet falls. The remaining 90% were one or another endless variety of pallida and the other 50% were drab yellows. [#’s are as they appeared in ROOTS – WebEd.] Whoa, too much! Not when you dabble in old iris ID! You quickly discover antiques consist of two dozen distinctive iris and 20,000 look-a-likes. The majority of antique cultivars have only minute differences from their closest neighbor in color and form.

Should all fail and your identification skills be overwhelmed with varieties that; “could be any one of a hundred,” I propose a strategy that will duck the entire distressing issue.

Donate the perplexing II) problems to a public conservancy. Perhaps some erudite irisarian wandering by will twink on the unknown, exclaiming “Yoiks, there grows a magnificent specimen of Due Decazes, Lémon 1855.” Right.

This ploy does have the advantage of rescuing you from either your ineptitude or our forebears’ insistence on introducing iris with minuscule shades of difference. It delays your miserable confession of “I don’t have the foggiest notion what that iris could be.” Few experts are able to tag suspect varieties with an ironclad ID. Even the hybridizers of many iris would be confused if confronted with their varieties here and now. By no means the least consideration, ID plantings alert the gardening public that problems in old plant identification are rife.

Seriously, all who write for this journal or are members of HIPS can, by virtue of implied knowledge and skill, expect to receive iris with a plea w furnish names. You may dodge the bullet if a photo is all that is furnished – mumble about blues not reproducing, fault the focus or composition. Live plant material coupled with an extended period of observation leaves little room for excuses. You could always opt out with the plea of “no space… no time… no energy…” or worst of all, “no interest.” This goes against the grain for nearly all of us; so, willy-nilly, we give ID our best shot.

If we are to competently achieve identification of unknowns, we need several tools that are not now available. The best existing arsenal of reference material, largely comprised of written descriptions, is a basic prerequisite. As cultivars with impeccable provenances are located, a photographic reference manual should be constructed and published. The ultimate in varietal identification is a collection of named specimens with valid, traceable, linage. Accumulation of these ‘sure-thing’ specimens, planted and maintained in several accessible locations is a HIPS ‘must do.’

Above all, we need to come to terms with the realization that identification of many older iris may never be achieved with reasonable certainty. We need the honesty and firmness of purpose to accept this reality while still continuing our best efforts to achieve varietal identifications.

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