What's In A Name?
Jeff Walters, Utah
In an era when many outstanding brown-toned irises were introduced, Argus Pheasant was the one that went all the way for its hybridizer, Fred DeForest. Earning an HM in 1948, the year of its introduction, Argus Pheasant picked up an AM in 1950 on its way to capturing the Dykes Medal in 1952.
Following Argus Pheasant, Fred DeForest won a second Dykes Medal with First Violet in 1956. Fred and Caroline DeForest's "Irisnoll Garden" in Canby was one of the tour gardens for the 1960 AIS Portland Convention. Visitors were deeply impressed by the recent DeForest introductions and selected seedlings they viewed on that tour. An insight into Fred's character is provided by the observations on his nonchalant modesty in accepting the Franklin Cook Memorial Cup for his 1956 introduction Violet Hills at the Awards Banquet that year.
As recorded by Peggy Burke Grey, then National Robins Editor, in her write-up of the Portland Convention that appeared in the July, 1960 AIS Bulletin: "Fred has a sly sense of humor and affects a sort of jovial cracker-barrel approach to the acclaim he receives.
Argus Pheasant is described in the 1953 Syllmar Gardens catalog as having "large, gorgeous blooms of golden argus brown with highlights of a bright coppery sheen and a beard to match." The 1957 Cooley's catalog speaks of it as "smooth soft brown...deeper in tone and more metallic than Pretty Quadroon...with orange-brown beards." As with many irises of blended tones, a forthright description is elusive. Nevertheless, it seems logical to seek the inspiration for its name in its color.
Argus Pheasant is the namesake of one particular species among many that form the extended avian tribe known as pheasants -- a group of medium to large ground-dwelling birds that are mostly native to Asia. Besides the familiar Ring-necked Pheasant, the tribe includes such varied kindred as the peacock, the jungle fowl (ancestor of the domestic chicken), the iridescent Tragopans, and the almost impossibly gorgeous Golden and Lady Amherst Pheasants. The Argus Pheasant (Argmiana argus) is one of the largest of its kind, the adult male stretching an impressive six-and-a-half feet from the point of his beak to the tip of his long tail. For comparative purposes, the male Argus Pheasant is about half the bulk of the peacock with a tail nearly two-thirds as long as the latter's fabled train.
The native home of the Argus Pheasant is the Malay Peninsula and the large East Indian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. The favored habitat of the Argus is the old growth forests from sea level up to an altitude of 4000 feet. They prefer the drier and more rocky country and avoid the coastal swamps. The birds are very shy and solitary, and though large and vocal, they are seldom seen.The female seeks out the male when she is ready to breed, but the sexes keep apart the rest of the time. The cock Argus clears a circular area four to five yards in diameter on which to perform his nuptial displays, and sticks close toit except when molting his feathers.
The Argus Pheasant has long been famous in East Asia, but live birds only reached the West in 1872, when a few were sent to the London zoo. Since then, they have been bred in captivity by zoos and bird fanciers around the world. The Argus Pheasant adapts well to such conditions,and is not difficult to keep, other than requiring protection from low temperatures. It is still reasonably abundant in its native habitat, though there is a potentially serious threat posed by the extensive logging operations taking place there.
Thus, Argus Pheasant, the iris, was named for Argus Pheasant, the bird, because of the rich brown color both of them share. But, that only begs the question of how the bird got its name, which is not as obvious a descriptive term as those applied to the Ring-necked or Golden Pheasants, for example. To answer that question we must enter the fantastic and fascinating world of Greek mythology.
The Greeks had many gods who dwelt on Olympus, but Zeus was king of the Olympians and Hera was his queen. At one time there was a lovely young priestess named Io, who served in the temple of Hera. Zeus, who had a roving eye, took a liking to her, and when Hera's suspicions became aroused, he quickly transformed Io into a white heifer and presented her to his jealous wife as a gift. Hera, who was wise to the ways of her consort and was well aware that he was waiting for a chance to turn Io back into a woman, entrusted the white heifer to Argus, the Giant, for safe-keeping. This was a shrewd move on her part, since Argus was equipped with a hundred eyes distributed all over his body, closing no more than half of them even when he slept. Argus led the heifer Io to a secluded olive grove, tied her to one of the trees, and settled down to keep an eye (or fifty of them) on her.
Zeus, however, was not willing to give up the game, so he sent his clever son Hermes to get Io back for him. Hermes, realizing he could not slip past the ever watchful Argus, played soothing tunes on his flute while keeping out of sight. As soon as Argus was lulled into a deep slumber and closed his hundredth eye, Hermes rolled a huge boulder down on him, crushing the Giant to death, and made off with Io. However, Hera, who always had the last word in these affairs, sent a gadfly to torment Io and chase her all over the world to keep her away from Zeus. Not satisfied with this revenge, she also plucked out Argus' eyes and placed them on the peacock's tail, keeping this bird constantly at her side as a reminder to all of her husband's perfidious conduct.
So there you have it -- the man, the bird, the iris, and the myth! How did Fred DeForest come to name his bright brown iris for a bird that conceals itself in the jungles of Southeast Asia? Could it be that his days at the chicken ranch in Novato had sparked an enduring interest in the spectacular and exotic cousins of the humble domestic fowl?