Reprint: The Iris That Lost Its Name

by Clarence Mahan, VA

Louis Van Houtte’s nursery introduced SANS SOUCI in Belgium in 1854. Soon after it was imported into the United States SANS SOUCI became confused with another iris, namely HONORABILE, which was introduced in Paris in 1840 by Jean-Niclas Lémon. SANS SOUCI is still grown all over North America and even wins top awards in iris shows, but it is almost always identified as HONORABILE.

If the iris you are growing as HONORABILE has yellow standards and “elegantly reticulated crimson-brown falls” you are probably growing SANS SOUCI. The true HONORABILE has solid red-violet falls that appear “rich mahogany-brown.” How do I know this? Let me tell you.

First, the 1916 edition of Rev. C.S. Harrison’s Manuel on the Iris has a list of the names and descriptions of iris cultivars prepared by one of America’s pioneer iris growers and sellers, Mrs. Jennet Dean of Moneta, California. This list includes both HONORABILE and SANS SOUCI. HONORABILE, identified by its synonym “Honorabilis” on Mrs. Dean’s list, was described as an iris with yellow standards and “rich mahogany-brown” falls. Mrs. Dean’s description of SANS SOUCI was that it was an iris with yellow standards and falls “elegantly reticulated crimson-brown.” After the description of SANS SOUCI Mrs. Dean has a note; “True Sans Souci – not Honorabilis.”

Second, there is evidence provided by Seraphin Mottet. Seraphin Mottet was not just another nurseryman or iris breeder. He was widely regarded as one of the two or three most knowledgeable authorities on irises in the world. He grew both HONORABILE and SANS SOUCI for the firm Vilmorin-Andrieux et Cie. In the article “Classification des Variétiés d’Iris des Jardins in Les Iris Cultivés, which was published in 1923, Mottet proposed a new system for classifying garden irises based on color.

You can check out the Color Classification chart mentioned here at the end of the 1929 Checklist Introduction posted in the Reading Room

Mottet’s system had eight color classes with subclasses. Mottet’s Class VII was for variegata-type irises. The first two subclasses in Class VII were for irises with pale yellow standards. One of these subclasses was for irises with pale yellow standards an falls with distinct veins, and as example given by Mottet was GRACCHUS. The second subclass described irises with pale yellow standards and solid-colored falls. Mottet cited LORELEY as an iris belonging to this subclass.

The third subclass of Mottet’s Class VII was for irises with dark yellow standards and distinctly veined falls. Mottet assigned SANS SOUCI to this subclass. Mottet placed HONORABILE in his fourth subclass for irises with dark yellow standards and solid-colored falls. Thus, according to Mottet, the distinguishing color characteristic of SANS SOUCI and HONORABILE is whether the falls have distinct veins or whether they are solid-colored. If the falls have veining, the iris is SANS SOUCI.

Confusius taught that everything must have a name, and that it must always be called by this name. If we do not refer to a thing by its correct name, disorder will ensue, the bad will be preferred over the good and true knowledge will elude us. So for goodness sake, if you are growing SANS SOUCI and calling it HONORABILE go out to the garden and change the nameplate. We need all the true knowledge we can aquire, and we certainly do not need any more disorder.

~ Reprinted from AIS Bulletin #341, April 2006.
Image © MU