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Historic Iris Preservation

Updated on March 22, 2017

Preserving Historic Irises

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

Many years ago, 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 home town in Western Washington that I found I needed to learn all over again how to garden. Through those learning years these iris thrived in spite of neglect, ignorance on my part in how to properly amend the soil or keep them watered in this arid climate with vicious winters. It was the tough survivalist nature of these plants that inspired me to learn more about iris and eventually led me to begin hybridizing (breeding) iris of my own. When I finally "discovered" iris with a passion, I learned that these were historic iris and began a quest to find their proper names. This research on the topic of historic iris is the basis from which I draw the topic of this article.

Today I own a small startup backyard nursery specializing in iris and daylilies for the harsh climate gardener www.newdaygardens.com. 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)

Your First Question is Probably "What IS an Historic Iris?"

Good question! The American Iris Society defines an historic iris as one that was introduced 30 years ago or more. That is, as of 2012, any one introduced before 1983 is considered "historic".

Now, your second question may be something like this..."OK, now I understand what an 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?"

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)

Why Preserve Historic Iris?

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

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

One reason often sited 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 in form 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, thus are 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 preservation of 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 do so by narrowing 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 in order to develop other desirable traits.

For example, in bearded irises there 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.

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 hybridizers they have more likelihood of success in a timeframe that they will live to see.

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

If you grow irises today, do you know their registered names?

See results
After several years of research, these two beautiful historic iris are still searching for their proper names.
After several years of research, these two beautiful historic iris are still searching for their proper names.

Proper Identification Please...

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 around the world not only grow their own large collections of historic iris but they maintain a website filled with recent photographs of historic types and old hybridizer's catalogs. Experts at identification will guide you through the key observable differences, such as size of flower, 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 in order 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.

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    • TTMall profile image

      TTMall 5 years ago

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

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      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 profile image

      flycatcherrr 5 years ago

      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 profile image

      ronberry lm 5 years ago

      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!

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      So beautiful.

    • newdaygardens profile image
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      newdaygardens 5 years ago from Minnesota

      @anonymous: Thank you!

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      anonymous 5 years ago

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

    • MariaMontgomery profile image

      MariaMontgomery 5 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      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 profile image

      Ben Reed 5 years ago

      A lovely lense - thankyou

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I love you lens and the beautiful pictures

    • mbgphoto profile image

      Mary Beth Granger 5 years ago from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA

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

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      cbarkett 5 years ago

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

    • newdaygardens profile image
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      newdaygardens 5 years ago from Minnesota

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

    • newdaygardens profile image
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      newdaygardens 5 years ago from Minnesota

      @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.

    • Countryluthier profile image

      E L Seaton 5 years ago from Virginia

      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!

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      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 profile image
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      newdaygardens 5 years ago from Minnesota

      @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 profile image
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      newdaygardens 5 years ago from Minnesota

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

    • newdaygardens profile image
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      newdaygardens 5 years ago from Minnesota

      @PrettyWorld: Thank you for the kind comments!

    • prosepine lm profile image

      prosepine lm 5 years ago

      Your garden must be beautiful!

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 5 years ago from Arkansas USA

      Interesting! And gorgeous irises!

    • profile image

      PrettyWorld 5 years ago

      Lovely lens! What beautiful irises. :)