Reprint: Name Dropping

by Phil Edinger, the Identification Chairman

Early this year I received a letter from a member who asked how the identification committee works. It was an embarrassingly good question! So far, this still is a committee of one – in search of a system. Well, “in search of…” is not entirely accurate. There is no ONE system; instead there are three different, but interlocking, approaches to zeroing in on identifications. This brief explanation of each, with its pros and cons, may help expedite individual inquiries.

1) Written descriptions. No words, lacking visuals (either photos or memory of bloom), will lead to identification, but words certainly can help sort the field of contenders. For example, a member in New Mexico sent a description of an old “orchid pink” TB, saying that it was: undoubtedly diploid; a pallida type with papery spathes and close high branching; had relatively narrow drooping falls with rusty veining at either side of a thin white and yellow beard. Concerning source, she stated it came from an elderly gentleman whose grandmother in the eastern USA had grown it; she inferred it had been introduced prior to 1920.

The above description, brief though it is, helps in these ways. First, it suggests something probably no newer than 1920 – no need to consider Dogrose, Pink Satin, etc. It is a pallida type, ruling out variegata pinks like Her Majesty. And there is a chance it may have originated in the eastern states or, at least, may have been catalogued by one of the early commercials there, e.g. Farr or Sturtevant. And the descriptive terms help with mention of veining and color of beard. This is a good start, automatically ruling out a number of “pinks” and narrowing the focus to certain kinds of a particular age.

PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE… In any written description, mention this one point about foliage: whether the leaf bases are GREEN or whether they are COLORED with reddish purple. This characteristic is an automatic sorting aid.

2) Photographs and/or transparencies (slides), “…worth a thousand words,” IF the photo or slide is good. In addition to good focus, proper exposure (neither too dark nor light), and accurate color rendition, “good” means showing representational flowers. Closeup is best if just one visual is submitted, but the addition of a picture of entire stalk or blooming clump can reveal details that may not be apparent in just one closeup. A bit of written description always can add to a photographic likeness: leaf base color (!!); height; season of bloom; etc. Source can help too (see point #1 above). But if you tell me your grandmother grew it when you were a youngster, I can’t get a close fix on the iris’ age unless I know yours! (Better is to note that grandma grew it in the 1920s in Indiana, for example.) Refer to ROOTS vol. 2 no. 1, pages 6-8, for an exhaustive list of possible details to note. From a gentleman in Canada I recently received a set of photos, slides, descriptions that would satisfy a botanist, AND speculations on identification based on what had been grown in that region. I couldn’t have asked for more!

Occasionally a photo/slide is so good of something I know well that I can positively say, “that’s So-and-So.” Sometimes it is strongly suggestive, letting me say that the iris in question “looks like” or “likely is” So-and-So. But there are plenty of cases where the unknown will be “similar to” or will “somewhat resemble” something else…or will draw a total blank. This leads to combing descriptions and/or the next option.

3) Living material. Several members have sent rhizomes of the nameless irises so that I could grow the unknowns and study them. In some cases the rhizomes have come as a follow-up to descriptions and/or photos. In one instance they arrived without any prior descriptions or photos and only with an indication of general antiquity and note as te the color (e.g.”wine purple”) for each. Being able to see the iris in question is the surest way to come to grips with identification, but it takes time – a minimum of one year IF the rhizome is husky enough to flower (and is recognizable); longer if the plant has to build up to flowering size and/or if the “sleuthing” has to go on over more than just one bloom season. Since this aspect of “Committee” research is just going into the second bloom season, most submitted unknowns have yet to flower. One did last year and was recognizable – the same as another unknown! (This is not as hopeless as you might think, though: the extent of distribution of an unknown can point toward its relative popularity, and this, then, can direct the popularity, and this, then, can direct the sleuthing.)

The intrigue of the unknown, the challenge in the search for identity, the satisfaction of being able to say, “Aha: that’s IT!”…this is immensely soul-satisfying. But, having an Identification Committee – of one person or many – doesn’t guarantee all mysteries solved. It’s important to remember that your iris is equally beautiful whether you learn for certain it is, say, Shekinah, or whether it always remains “Aunt Ruby’s skinny canary.”

~ Reprinted from ROOTS, Vol 4, Issue 1, Spring 1991.