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Historic Iris Preservation

I love growing iris in my garden, it's important for me to preserve the living history of these plants.

This iris was positively identified as "Pink Opal" (Sass, 1934)

This iris was positively identified as "Pink Opal" (Sass, 1934)

Preserving Historic Irises

I am passionate about growing historic iris as a means to preserve a living history in plants.

Shortly after moving to Colorado, a friend gave me two beautiful bearded iris plants. I had always gardened, but the climate in Colorado was so different from my hometown in Western Washington that I found I needed to learn all over again. Through those learning years, these irises thrived despite neglect and ignorance on how to properly amend the soil or keep them watered in this arid climate with vicious winters. The tough survivalist nature of these plants inspired me to learn more about then and eventually led me to begin hybridizing (breeding) irises of my own. When I finally "discovered" irises with a passion, I learned that these were historic irises and began a quest to find their proper names. This research on the topic of historic irises is the basis from which I draw the topic of this article.

Historic Iris Preservation Society

I am a member of the Historic Iris Preservation Society (HIPS), the American Iris Society (AIS), the Northern Colorado Daylily Club, the Mountains and Plains Iris Society, and a regional officer for the American Hemerocallis Society (AHS- daylilies).

Historic Iris 'Glowing Volcano' (Buckles, 1970)

Historic Iris 'Glowing Volcano' (Buckles, 1970)

What Is a Historic Iris?

Good question! The American Iris Society defines a historic iris as one that was introduced 30 or more years ago. That is, as of 2022, anyone introduced before 1993 is considered "historic."

Now, your next questions may be something like..."OK, now I understand what a historic iris is, but why should I care, and more specifically, why should I care enough to want to "preserve" them...and what does that mean anyway?"

Why Preserve Historic Iris?

So let's address the first question. Why would anyone care about historic iris or historic plants in general, for that matter?

There are many answers for this question, probably as many answers as there are people interested in preserving gardening history. The reasons do tend to fall around a few common themes, though.

One reason often cited is sentimental value. "They remind me of my grandmother's gardens," or "I used to visit my grandfather's grave, and these flowers were planted all around the old cemetery" are common themes. Sometimes it is as simple as "a friend gave me some of these many years ago, and I remember her every time they bloom." Sentimental value for old things can't be discounted. It brings us joy and reminds us of pleasant times with special people.

A few people will say they just prefer the elegance and simple lines of the older forms. The flowers are smaller, often longer and narrower, and sometimes surprisingly fragrant. All of these features make them attractive to gardeners of today.

Another reason not to be overlooked is the preservation of historic landmarks and buildings. Often such sites hosted gardens which the new owners, be they private or public, would like to replicate with authentic plants of the period. If the plants were not preserved, and thus no longer available, then replicating an authentic period garden would be impossible. The educational opportunities of a public historic site would be diminished.

One reason for preserving historic plants that is frequently overlooked is the preservation of the gene pool for the plant species.

When hybridizers (plant breeders) develop new plants, they often narrow the gene pool through a method called "line breeding." Line breeding involves the cross-pollination and selection of closely related plants over many generations. Repeated selection of certain traits will eventually lead to a narrowing of the genetics in the line such that those traits are more easily reproduced. Once the trait is easily produced, the plants can be "outcrossed" to unrelated plants to develop other desirable traits.

For example, bearded irises were originally only white and purple, small-flowered and narrow formed species irises to work with. Through many generations of selective breeding, with each generation of plants, the hybridizers chose the seedlings that showed more of a pink cast to the flowers. Eventually, what we see today as "pink" irises were developed. Once the color was set into the seedling lines, the hybridizers could focus on expanding the various flower forms so that today we have wide ruffled pink ones, large-flowered pink ones, intermediate-sized pink ones, and dwarf pinks.

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It takes many years to develop a new trait like this; often, multiple generations of hybridizers work on the same trait to perfect it.

These historic lines still contain unexplored genetics, which could lead to new traits for future hybridizers to develop. If the future hybridizers have to go all the way back to the species in order to try to find those hidden traits, it may take a lifetime or more to move the traits forward. By building on the work of previous generations of hybridizes, they have more likelihood of success in a timeframe that they will live to see.

It was thrilling to discover that this unknown historic iris from the local cemetary is actually 'Shannopin' (Pillow, 1940)

It was thrilling to discover that this unknown historic iris from the local cemetary is actually 'Shannopin' (Pillow, 1940)

Historic Iris Identification

One of the challenges in preserving historic plants of any kind is that often the plant has been separated from its proper name. How many home gardens have you seen where every plant is carefully labeled with its name, hybridizer, and registration date?

Chances are you've seen few or more likely none. Aside from the occasional obsessed collector, most gardeners remember their plants as simply "that purple iris" or "that yellow one by the garage." With tens of thousands of iris plants registered, you can imagine that there are literally thousands of "purple" ones.

This is where the Historic Iris Preservation Society (HIPS) comes to the rescue (see resource list below). Members worldwide not only grow their own large collections of historic irises, but they maintain a website filled with recent photographs of historical types and old hybridizer's catalogs. Experts at identification will guide you through the key observable differences, such as flower size, bloom size, fragrance, time of bloom, and foliage differences. Submit your photos in the HIPS identification forum, and other members will try to help you find an ID.

Frequently it is necessary to grow your iris side-by-side with a suspected match from a known reliable source to verify the identity. HIPS members regularly trade rhizomes and also provide a listing of commercial resources.

Researching the proper names of historic plants is every bit as addicting as human genealogy research. In fact, you may find yourself taking on unusual projects; for example, after noticing a large variety of historic iris growing in a local cemetery, I have given myself the daunting multi-year task of attempting to identify the varieties growing there. It is fascinating the information that can be learned, and the sense of nostalgia is wonderful.


  • American Iris Society
    The world authority on irises and the recognized world wide plant registration entity for irises. They offer a number of valuable online resources including "The Iris Encyclopedia."

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2017 newdaygardens

Guest Comments

TTMall on March 21, 2012:

Loved Your Lens! You really put a lot of good information in it.

anonymous on March 17, 2012:

Great article! I became interested in irises and at first was attracted to all the "new" varieties with their bright color combinations, flounces and ruffles. At some point I discovered historics and started growing them in my garden. Now I have to come really appreciate the simple lines, delicate forms, and fragrances of the "old" irises. Some of my favorite classic historics are 'Honorabile' (Lemon, 1840), 'Dauntless' (Connell, 1929), and 'The Red Douglas' (Sass, 1934) plus so many more. Thanks for a great article on the beauty and value of historic irises!

flycatcherrr on March 12, 2012:

One of my very favourite flowers! I don't know all the names of my irises, because a few have been passed around the community from garden to garden for more than half a century, but all are equally treasured. I love the variety of irises available; and the way they are tough enough for Canada's east coast climate, yet look so exotic and fragile.

ronberry lm on February 22, 2012:

What a great lens! I have irises in one of my gardens but nothing like the pic above. You have re-awakened my interest. Thank you. Now to convince my wife that I need to go flower shopping!

anonymous on February 07, 2012:

So beautiful.

newdaygardens (author) from Minnesota on February 01, 2012:

@anonymous: Thank you!

anonymous on January 31, 2012:

I came back to your article and *blessed* it!

MariaMontgomery from Coastal Alabama, USA on January 30, 2012:

This is a beautiful lens. Thank you for making it. I raise irises, too. They are my favorite flower. To me, they look quite exotic, even though almost everyone's grandmother had some. I took some with me on our move from North Carolina to Colorado, but left them behind when we returned home to Alabama. I'm now collecting more.

Ben Reed from Redcar on January 26, 2012:

A lovely lense - thankyou

anonymous on January 25, 2012:

I love you lens and the beautiful pictures

Mary Beth Granger from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA on January 25, 2012:

I love photographing Irises at the Missouri Botanical garden in St. Louis. They have a fantastic selection. I've never tried growing them've perked my interest.

newdaygardens (author) from Minnesota on January 15, 2012:

@Countryluthier: Thank you for visiting my lens. I'm glad that it gave you a trip down memory lane!

newdaygardens (author) from Minnesota on January 15, 2012:

@cbarkett: Thank you for visiting & commenting on my lens. I hope you find the names of your oldies. It is such a fun search, often filled with serendipity and new friendships.

cbarkett on January 15, 2012:

I have some given to me that look like the old variety. I will be curious to see if I can identify them now.

E L Seaton from Virginia on January 15, 2012:

I grew a few of these as a child from cast offs of other folks gardens they remain to this day in Mississippi. Thanks for sharing. In this lens is a time trave trip back to my youth. Keep up the good work!

anonymous on January 10, 2012:

these flowers remind me of my mom, she loves them and they remind her of her grandmother. I supposed thats why they have a lasting image in my mine, thank you for sharing these.

newdaygardens (author) from Minnesota on January 08, 2012:

@prosepine lm: Thank you! Except for the one cemetery photo, all of the others were taken in my garden. It shocked me the first time I found a total stranger wandering through my yard during bloom season....but once I showed her around and saw her jaw drop over & over I appreciated the compliment. I hope to start hosting open garden days sometime soon.

newdaygardens (author) from Minnesota on January 08, 2012:

@SusanDeppner: Thank you! It means a lot to have my first lens complimented so kindly by a Giant!

newdaygardens (author) from Minnesota on January 08, 2012:

@PrettyWorld: Thank you for the kind comments!

prosepine lm on January 08, 2012:

Your garden must be beautiful!

Susan Deppner from Arkansas USA on January 06, 2012:

Interesting! And gorgeous irises!

PrettyWorld on January 05, 2012:

Lovely lens! What beautiful irises. :)

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