Reprint: Of Exotic Birds and Tragic Lovers

by Phil Edinger, CA

Sometimes, a mis-identification can he so widespread and of such long standing that no one thinks to question it. After all, if everyone grows Plant X under the same name – under which it has circulated for countless years – who would expect it to be incorrect? Growers of heritage roses are all too familiar with the “Usurper’s Syndrome,” particularly among 19th century originations, for which there exist few photographic or artistic renderings, and for which the few detailed descriptions tend toward exaggeration.

Because the majority of our historic irises are 20th- century productions, we can expect to find among old catalogs, iris society publications, and various books and periodicals, decent descriptions and even photographs. All of this material works toward name accuracy; even if an impostor begins circulating, sooner or later it runs up against the real thing – or against a sharp-eyed reader who notices the discrepancy between description/photo and the actual iris.

But….one widely grown historic iris has managed to slip through such a safety net to appear falsely in our midst. How many of us grow one labeled Pfauenauge (Goos & Koenemann 1906)? By this name (or its literal translation, “Peacock’s Eye”), this distinctive iris has made the rounds among collectors for at least several decades. It was one of my earlier historic acquisitions, and even now it is distinct among the diploids I know because of the prominent and exaggerated purple “shoulders” on the falls.

My confidence in its identity was troubled, though, some years after I had been growing it. One day I came face to face with the cover of the January 1961 AIS Bulletin. There was “Peacock’s Eye,” sporting a Best-in Show rosette – but the cover caption called it Romeo (Millet et fils 1912). “Well!” I thought: “they must be wrong,” or at least 90% wrong. But the 10% doubt forced me to read descriptions of the two irises in the Chronicles for Goos and Koenemann and Millet. And what I found wiped out my 90% certainty of the Pfauenauge/”Pea cock’s Eye” identification.

Now it is your turn, dear readers, to make your own discovery next spring. Compare these descriptions with the iris you grow as Pfauenauge/”Peacock’s Eye”

From Cornell Extension Bulletin #112, page 82. “Color effect a bronzed yellow, velvety purple, blended and veined bicolor. S. wax yellow, reticulated red-brown. F. deeper velvety true purple, broadly edged wax yellow, widening on the haft, veined red-brown on bronzed lavender haft.

The style branches are bronzed and the beard is very conspicuously colored. The growth is moderate, and the foliage is stiff, slender, deep yellow green, tinged at the base. The flowering stalks are of medium height, carrying their interesting varicolored flowers in good form. Its fragrance is very good. Translated, its name means peacock’s eye.”

From 1915 Farr catalog: “S. olive gold, F. bluish plum color with gold border.”

From Wing 1920 catalog: “S. olive gold, F. bluish plum with wide border of gold and wide middle line of white. Style arms olive gold, beard orange.”

From Bonnewitz 1920 catalog: “Like Loreley except that the S. may be a little darker, and that the yellow or gold border in the falls is a little wider, wider than any other flower in it class.”

iris romeoRomeo:
From AIS Bulletin #6, page 35. “Fair size; S. an uneven citron yellow; F. center lilac, sides velvety Rood’s violet; widely branched; growth moderate; to 30 in. Foliage tinged at base; beard orange; haft yellow and white reticulated maroon. Rather striking; the marking of the falls unique.”

From Millet 1923-24 catalog: “A small flowered iris with firm, tall, thin stems. Standards of a fine bright lemon-yellow; falls mauve and rich reddish-violet with throat striped and pencilled of maroon on a white ground…”

The two irises share two points of description: yellow standards (though different shades, according to descriptions) and purple-based foliage. But from these points, all others differ. Pfauenauge is a fairly typical variegata pattern but with an unusually wide margin of yellow on the falls which also have a white median line. Romeo, in contrast, has lilac colored falls with no yellow margin and velvety maroon thumbprints or “shoulders” on either sides of the beards.

My guess is that all material circulating as Pfauenauge is really Romeo. If anyone grows a Pfauenauge that truly agrees with the descriptions above, Editor Lowe and I would love to hear from you! It would be good – as a record-straightener – to have both irises in circulation.

iris pfaunauge stampAnd for a trivial footnote, there is the matter of translation. The word pfauenauge is a combination of pfauen (peacock) and auge (eye); a literal translation is , indeed, “peacock’s eye.” But in my German dictionary, under the word pfauen there is also listed the word pfauenauge which they give as “peacock butterfly.” Do we have a German lepidopterist among our members who could speak to this?

[Note – Since the publication of this article clarification has indeed come to light. There is a europeon butterfly which bears the name Phauenauge due to the ‘Peacock’s eye’ appearance of its wings. It’s image was used on a 2005 stamp from the German Postal Service, as seen here. -Mike]

~ Reprinted from ROOTS, Vol 6, Issue 2, Fall 1993.