"Please Name Me!"
by Mike Lowe, VA
What 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.
The Quest Goes on
by Mike Unser, WA, 2005
The article above was published in the early days of HIPS as a warning against too high of expectations in attempting identification of historic irises, and as a call to HIPS members as to where efforts would be needed in assisting with identification. As several several things have changed since then, I'll add these follow-up remarks.
With the advent of the digital age we now have access to thousands upon thousands of iris photos on the internet, as well as an easy way to share our own photos with other irisariens. While photos are not a guaranteed way of reattaching a name to an old iris, it certainly opens up whole new means of comparison and the possibility in narrowing down a list of 'maybes'. Likewise, the internet has opened up avenues to acquire vintage books and catalogs dealing with irises thru sites such as Amazon.com. We can as well make contact with thousands of iris lovers thru the various mailing lists and forums discussing irises - a treasure trove of personal experience that can be of great help in the ID quest. Many old references long lost or squirreled away in dusty old trunks are once again available to irisarians thru the efforts of HIPS members - the Cornell Bulletin 112 and the complete Iris Chronicles just to name two. These are invaluble in assisting with the Society's goal of preserving our iris heritage, and much gratitude is due to all the members who have contributed to the vast storehouse of knowledge now avalable at our fingertips all over the interent. The opportunites will only increase as more and more people log on to the most valuable communications tool mankind has seen since the invention of the telephone.
Some things however have not changed. It is still true that unless really distinctive those old purples and blues are all going to look so much alike it may be impossible ever to get them their name back - if they ever even had one. It is still the case that there are not comprehensive references bringing together detailed descriptions and verified photographs, though the galleries here and elsewhere online (iris-photos, sellers catalogs, etc.) are a good start and will only improve, much work remains to be done. Old problems with color variations with film and cameras are compounded with the differences in color displays of different monitors and color capture ability of digital cameras - an issue we may never overcome. In addition, many of our older irisarians are not online and their expertise is not becoming part of the vast digital storehouse. Efforts to preserve their lifetimes of experience and knowledge are spotty at best.
HIPS has made a wonderful start over the last decade and a half in bringing together the tools needed to preseve, locate and ID historic irises. But there is much more work to be done for the future.