Irises of Note
Notes on Honorabile
~ Jean Witt
  • Please,
  • sans souciThe picture of HONORABILE in the January AIS Bulletin prompts me to submit some notes on our experiences with it in the miniature tall bearded breeding program. This venerable Lémon variegata of 1840, familiar to anyone who ever walked in a small town cemetery on Memorial Day, appears to be setting some sort of record for the number of bud sports that it produces. Since 1950, when we began looking for MTB-sized varieties among the diploid irises of yesterday, we have found at least a dozen changes of flower color - some of long standing, others recent.

    kaleidoscopeThe two best-known sports of HONORABILE are KALEIDOSCOPE and JOSEPH'S COAT, which were introduced in 1929 and 1930 by A. B. Katkamier, a Macedon, NY, nurseryman. Whether they originated in his garden or elsewhere is not known. Though listed in the 1939 AIS Check List as being the same, they are actually quite different. In JOSEPH'S COAT the carotinoid [yellow] pigments are erratic, while the anthocyanin [responsible for scarlet, crimson, mauve, violet and blue color] remains unchanged; the result is a patchwork of ivory-and-yellow in the standards, and raspberry and red-brown in the falls. In KALEIDOSCOPE, the anthocyanin is erratic, and the yellow unchanged: the falls are irregularly splashed with patches of reddish plicata dotting. These two varieties were included in our earliest MTB lists, along with HONORABILE itself and another small variegata, SANS SOUCI, which Alice White had been using as an MTB parent. Of SANS SOUCI, the 1939 Check List says "mixed with HONORABILE," and under HONORABILE, "mixed with SANS SOUCI, but distinctly lighter." Little did the compilers of the Check List realize the extent of the mixing!

    sans souciA fifth member of the group was discovered in 1956 when the little yellow MTB SHERWIN-WRIGHT in my garden suddenly developed some anthocyanin on its falls and flowers on one stalk reverted to an exact replica of HONORABILE. As we discussed this phenomenon in our MTB robins the suggestion was made that SHERWIN-WRIGHT must have been a sport of HONORABILE in the first place, since upon close examination the plants were identical in all respects except flower color. It seemed a rather daring idea at the time, but we have since found that HONORABILE tends to show a few yellow sectors on its flowers nearly every year, and two additional complete yellows have been reported. One of these is almost identical with SHERWIN-WRIGHT, but has additional brown plicata dotting around the beard. Moreover, crosses with SHERWIN-WRIGHT give many seedlings with dark falls - as if HONORABILE had been used instead; the same is true of KALEIDOSCOPE. Both SHERWIN-WRIGHT and HONORABILE are plicata carriers. They are also very poor seed setters.

    In order to be sure that my plants of HONORABILE were correct, I obtained material from Presby Memorial Garden. The first year that the Presby plant bloomed, the terminal flower showed far less anthocyanin than those that followed. No wonder the Check List says that HONORABILE and SANS SOUCI are mixed! Which one, then, is the original? A plant of HONORABILE from Dr. Milan Blazek in Czechoslovakia, which bloomed in 1968, was definitely the darker type - which may mean that the Check List is wrong about HONORABILE's being the lighter and brighter one, but this point is far from being resolved. Sand, in Cornell Bulletin #100, said of HONORABILE, "The color in the falls is less intense and solid some seasons, while in others it is so dense that it becomes almost velvety."

    We passed the word in our MTB robins for our people to watch for additional sporting in any of these varieties, and asked the members of the Historical Robins to examine their antiques critically for possible additions to the group. The diagram summarizes the changes that have been reported.

    diagram of HONORABILE's sports

    It is not yet certain whether some of these are single-season accidents, or whether they have affected entire rhizomes and can be propagated. We have been able to take pictures of several of them, for a permanent record. The amoena, for instance would be a useful tool in MTB breeding; but it can hardly be given a name, for there is almost certainly among the old diploids a previous occurrence of this particular sport that already has a name. We hope, in time, to find it -- and who knows what else?

    The old yellow plicata MONTEZUMA (Farr 1909) is our sole suspect so far; plants of this variety that I obtained from Presby Gardens to check out as possible MTB bloomed last summer as more HONORABILE. This could be just a mistake of course, but knowing how hard they work at Presby to keep things straight, it is at least worth while to ask the question: could MONTEZUMA be yet another sport of HONORABILE? It is variously described as yellow, veined and dotted brown, with white around the beard. Unless we can locate a MONTEZUMA that fits this description we won't be able to solve this one. Does anyone still grow such a plant?

    Surely HONORABILE, a plant that is able to undergo reversible changes in both its anthocyanin and its carotinoid pigments, and which can run the gamut of iris patterns from variegata to plicata to self, must have more significance in the study of iris inheritance than has heretofore been realized.

    This penchant for erratic change in flower color is widespread at diploid level -- EXTEMPORE, MILDRED PRESBY, ICE FAIRY, FRO, LORELEY, HER MAJESTY, CLARA NOYES, and many others show it in varying degrees; in the last three it is often associated with changes in flower form: flattie shape, 4-merous flowers, flowers with 5-falls-and-1-standard, etc. Seedlings of MILDRED PRESBY inherit the problem.

    Certain diploid whites appear to be unstable. WHITE QUEEN's flowers show little blue squares or wedges nearly every year, as do those of LA NEIGE. In some seasons LA NEIGE has an obvious blue wash through the "spot" area. In 1970 my clump of WHITE QUEEN had one flower with a large yellow sector. Some whites apparently pass this unstable trait on to their seedlings: I have an erratic blue-splotched white that I call "Measles of Daystar" from DAYSTAR X HUSSARD. Fred Megson has eight such plants from LA NEIGE. This is the same type of disturbance for which I discarded the 4n yellow JASMANIA twenty-five years ago.

    TIFFANY is the only tetraploid variety to come to my attention which has left a comparable trail of erratic descendents: STRAWBERRY ICE (Kent 1956), white splashed red, ((CRYSTAL BEAUTY x TIFFANY sdlg) X (TIFFANY x CRYSTAL BEAUTY sdlg)); SPECKLED BIRD (Crandall 1957), erratic plicata, (TIFFANY x CAPITOLA); TENSLEEP (K. Moore 1952), plicata, no two flowers marked alike, (TIFFANY X CINNAMON BEAR); DAFFY (DeForest 1943), splashed plicata, (ADELATO x TIFFANY); CRAZY QUILT (Vallette 1954), an erratic yellow-ground plicata, also traces to Sass lines through its parents RUTH POLLACK and PEACHBLOW (ROYAL COACH xORLOFF), though not specifically to TIFFANY. Even if we delete SPECKLED BIRD because of its onco blood, TIFFANY still seems to have produced more than its share of erratics. There are conspicuous gaps in the history of the Sass plicatas as given by Agnes Whiting in the AIS Bulletin issue of July 1947, but some of them are said to trace back to HONORABILE and others to HER MAJESTY. Perhaps the origin of TIFFANY's unstable children is no great mystery after all.

    joseph's coat katkamier
    [ROOTS Editor: JOSEPH'S COAT, although recognized by Katkamier in 1930, was never registered as such. However, it was widely distributed and is listed as an historic iris by many of us. The 1939 Check List .says it is "synonomous with KALEIDOSCOPE." In view of this, the 1989 R and I lists: JOSEPH'S COAT KATKAMIER (A. Katkamier by E. Tankesley Clarke, R. 1989)...Sport of HONORABILE. See Adamgrove 1990 Catalog for more detailed explanation.]

    Originally published in The Medianite, Vol. 12, #4, October 1971
    Reprinted in and from ROOTS Vol. 3, Issue 1, Spring 1990.


    ...I want to express my sincere appreciation for your reprinting of Jean Witt's Notes on Honorabile in the last issue of ROOTS. The research Jean has done on Honorabile and its progeny is a very significant contribution toward our gaining an understanding of garden iris origins.

    There are some additional points of information regarding Honorabile which may be of some interest. First, it has intrigued me that M. Lémon chose a Latin name for this iris. Of the eighty-four irises Lémon identified as his own seedlings in 1840, only seven were given Latinized names, which in the case of Honorabile is the feminine form of the Latin word meaning 'respectful'. One of Lémon's great innovations was the bestowal of non-Latinized names of most iris cultivars of his own origination. Why was Honorabile, which Lémon identified as one of his best cultivars, given a Latinized name? (Properly, notwithstanding the AIS rules for naming irises, Honorabile should be honorabile, with a lower case 'h', as Lémon wrote it and as Lémon intended it to be - after all, there was no AIS around to tell Lémon what he could and could not do.)

    Jean Witt suggests in her article that the 1939 Check List may be wrong in stating that Honorabile is distinctly lighter than San Souci. The 1939 Check List is one of the monumental achievements of the American Iris Society, but it is far from infallible when dealing with the 19th century irises. For example, in the case of another Lémon iris, Augustissima, it is absolutely wrong in declaring it synonymous with the older Aurea. Lémon listed both irises in 1840 and identified Aurea as a cultivar which did not originate in his nursery at Belleville.

    The only early 19th century description of Honorabile as "pale yellow" appears to be in the 1841 issue of the English publication The Gardener's Chronicle. All the descriptions in French publications of the time describe the standards as either "yellow" or "golden yellow". It is important to remember that people who were describing colors of irises in the 1840's did not have a large literature of reference standards to use. In French, "pale" is pâle, and "dark" is foncé. Even today, one man's pâle may be another man's foncé - imagine how difficult describing yellow irises as yellow, pale yellow or dark yellow would be if we had not seen a lot of yellow irises. Then again, maybe in 1841 Honorabile bloomed paler than usual. The bulk of evidence in primary sources would not seem to support a description of Honorabile as a "light" or "pale" iris.

    Seraphin Mottet (186-1930) was one of the most respected, knowledgeable horticulturists in his day. For many years he was Head Gardener for Vilmorin-Andrieux et Cie; he was also Professor of Horticulture at St. Nicholas School at Igny. He organized the 1922 Iris Conference, and in his article Classification, des variétés d' Iris des Jardins in Les Iris Cultives, he uses Honorabile and Sans Souci as type cultivars for t.wn different color sections in his Class VII. Using these two irises as type cultivars would seemingly indicate that he would have thought that, at least in France at that time, people would be familiar with the two different irises as distinct cultivars. The distinction Mottet made between Honorabile and San Souci is in the veining in the falls. He described both irises as having dark yellow standards, with San Souci having distinct veining in the falls and Honorabile as having "veines confluentes". Of significance, Mottet's two other sections in Class VII were variegatas having pale yellow standards, so he clearly did not consider either Honorabile or Sans Souci to be light yellow irises. An iris having confluent violet veins, e.g. Honorabile, would appear darker than an iris having distinct veins, e.g. Sans Souci.

    It is interesting that the 1939 Check List identifies Honorabile as distinctly lighter than Sans Souci, but also designates San Souci as 'obsolete'. If Honorabile were mixed with Sans Souci, but Honorabile is distinctly lighter, how could Sans Souci no longer be in existence?

    It is my hope that the work Jean Witt has done with Honorabile will stimulate others to also take up the challenge. If any HIPS members have additional mutations of Honorabile (I have Brown's Mutant, Kaleidoscope, and Joseph's Coat), I am willing to go without food and clothes for a long time to obtain them. One last thought: Imagine a day in early June in the 1830's. Young M. Lémon has just recently taken over his late father's nursery on the edge of Paris. He walks into his field and sees Honorabile for the first time. How pleased he is! What a glorious day for us all!

    Clarence Mahan, VA
    ~ Reprinted from ROOTS, Vol 3, Issue 2, Fall 1990.