The Intersection of Plants and People
Thomas Johnson, hybridizer and co-owner of Mid-America Garden in Salem, Oregon, sweats over coming up with appropriate names for his irises.
“I find it very stressful,” he says, laughing. “I do not like naming irises.”
Like songwriters seeking a catchy refrain, hybridizers will jot down potential names whenever they come to mind. Titles from movies and songs, favorite television shows and idioms are all good fodder for iris names. A sample of some of the names inspired by pop culture include: ‘Don’t Stop Believing,’ ‘‘I’m All Shook Up,’ ‘Jurassic Park’, ‘Men in Black,’ ‘Fatal Attraction,’ ‘Dance the Night Away,’ ‘Project Runway’ ‘Doctor Who,’ and ‘Got Milk.’
Though naming one’s own creation might sound like a fun exercise in word play, for iris breeders, it’s usually a headache. They want the name to reflect the essence of the iris while also enticing consumers. However, what they hope is a clever and unique name has probably already been registered with the American Iris Society (AIS).
The AIS has an extensive online database available to its members, which lists the names of introduced irises from around the globe. Iris society representatives from Britain, France, New Zealand, Italy, Russia and other countries handle their members’ registrations, and send them on to the AIS for final processing. Thanks to the careful record-keeping of the AIS, irises, like pedigreed racehorses and show dogs, have meticulously traced lineages. Google an iris name like ‘Pillow Fight,’ and either an iris nursery or a gardening blog will reveal its parentage: ‘Magic’ (the mother, or seed parent) x ‘Sugartime’ (the father, or pollen parent). Chances are it can be traced back some 25 generations, sometimes all the way to the original species.
Robert Van Liere of Iris4u Iris Garden in Denver, Colorado, has given many of his iris creations names that hold private, personal meanings to him. Some, like ‘Carry Me Home,’ a phrase from a psalm, reflect his Christian beliefs.
“To the customer, it’s going to mean something else,” Van Liere says. “It means, ‘Carry me home! Take me with you!’”
‘Life Song Sings’ is a name that also bears great significance to Van Liere.
“I’ve got a landscape maintenance business where I cut grass and take care of people’s yards, but this is the passion,” he explains, gesturing to his expansive iris garden. “This is the life song.”
But Van Liere has also encountered problems with name registrations. One of his most cheerful cultivars has bright yellow “standards” — the three upright petals — and denim-blue “falls”, the three downward, cascading petals. But its standards are a little crooked.
“We were going to name it ‘Twisted Sister’,” he says, “but it was already taken by this guy in Texas!”
The iris ended up instead with the name ‘Crooked Little Smile.’
The “guy in Texas,” who Van Liere describes as a “great grower” with an “immaculate” garden, is a hybridizer named Tom Burseen. Some of his registered iris names are humorously unglamorous: ‘Tobacco Chew,’ ‘Have a Goodun’ and ‘Casino Cruiser.’
Certainly there are a multitude of iris names that evoke romance, such as ‘Coral Passion,’ ‘Champagne Elegance’ or ‘Honeymoon Dance.’ Many others are more risqué, as in ‘Girl Gone Wild,’ ‘Well-Endowed,’ and ‘Wench.’
Catherine Long of Long’s Gardens in Boulder, Colorado, works closely with hybridizers and is often privy to the story behind the naming of an iris.
She remembers introducing the iris of the late Jack Durrance of Colorado, a hybridizer Long remembers as having “quite a sense of humor.”
“He wanted to name it after Linda Lovelace, who was the star of ‘Deep Throat’ the porn film,” Long says. (Durrance had discovered that his first choice of name, ‘Deep Throat,’ was already taken.)
To register the iris as ‘Linda Lovelace,’ Durrance would have had to get the porn star’s written consent and submit it to the AIS along with the standard registration papers. Ultimately, he decided to devise a different name that would still convey — though not to unsuspecting consumers — his admiration for Ms. Lovelace. He named the iris, ‘I Love Lace.’
Lipstick and house paint companies know that the name of a product can help boost its appeal in the subconscious minds of consumers, and iris growers understand this also.
“Names can definitely sell them,” says Long.
Long recalls one customer who themed a garden based solely on irises with music-related names such as ‘Mazurka’ and ‘Balalaika.’ Other times, she has seen customers search for an iris bearing their own name or a family name.
In the semi-rural suburbs of Gien, France, Richard Cayeux, a fourth-generation iris grower and hybridizer, also concedes that “Naming an iris is not always easy.”
“When I name an iris,” Cayeux explains via email, “there is always a reference to the color or the form of the flower.”
His 2013 introduction, ‘Domino Noir,’ has crisp white standards contrasted with jet-black falls, the starkly opposite colors of a domino piece. Cayeux’s ‘Marron Chaud,’ translates from the French to “Hot Brown,” though “marron” also means “chestnut.” With light, brownish-red standards over garnet falls, the flower evokes the image of steaming chestnuts being sold at a streetcart in Paris during the chilly autumn, as well as a striking, auburn hair color for women, noted in French fashion by the same name.
Cayeux, like many other hybridizers, has named some irises after family, friends and other people whom he admires, though among those honored, he has found a critic with perhaps a trace of sibling rivalry.
“I named an iris after our second daughter ‘Hortense.’ After several years she told me, ‘My iris is less beautiful than Astrid’s and Sixtine’s ones.’ So I decided to name another one ‘Belle Hortense’ to please her.”
Cayeux named a 2013 introduction ‘Nelly Tardivier’ in memory of the former head gardener of the outstanding Jardins des Tuileries at the Louvre. The new cultivar, a vibrant amethyst-purple and warm fuschia-pink combination, has been planted in the famous Louvre gardens. While ‘Nelly Tardivier’ has been very popular with consumers, Cayeux’s daughter feels differently about it.
“When Hortense (still her) saw it in the seedlings field,” he notes, “she said, ‘Dad, this is the ugliest you have ever created.’”
Sometimes hybridizers aren’t afraid to tell it like it is when giving their more freakish creations a name. ‘Devil Baby,’ by hybridizer Keith Keppel, is a Standard Dwarf Bearded iris, a diminutive plant with darkly ominous, reddish-black petals. ‘Gag Gift,’ a cross by breeder Paul Black, co-owner with Thomas Johnson at Mid-America Garden, is a motley combination of colors. With purplish brown edging and matching speckles over a pale butter yellow, ‘Gag Gift’ is like the sweet, oddly brindled puppy a person rescues from the pound, knowing that its more harmoniously colored littermates will be unfairly favored. Sterling Innerst’s ‘Aggressively Forward’ has a crown of brassy, upward petals set against lighter yellow falls lined with jarring spatters of deep purple and a musky fragrance. The name fits; while it’s hard to look away, it’s easy to imagine even a bee finding offense with the visually loud display.
Among the coquettish, humorous and clever names that hybridizers come up with, there are even those that reveal an affinity for science fiction. There is a deep violet and black iris named ‘Dark Vader,’ a Standard Dwarf Bearded variety called ‘Yoda’ and a Tall Bearded called ‘Battlestar Gallactica.’ Schreiner’s Iris Gardens of Salem, Oregon — world-famous among iris growers and hybridizers — has a Tall Bearded iris called ‘Starship Enterprise’ and another named ‘Skywalker’.
Though he defers from being called a Trekkie (admitting only to ‘Star Trek fan’), Chuck Chapman, of Chapman Iris in Guelph, Canada, has named some of his irises with the television series in mind. ‘Captain Kirk,’ a Standard Dwarf Bearded iris with space-blue standards and cream falls peppered with more space-blue dots, is described by Chapman on his website:
“When traveling in hyper drive on Star Trek, the stars go by in a blur,” he writes. “The dark purple veining on cream plicata ground remind me of this visual effect.”
In a phone interview, Chapman describes another one of his creations.
“‘Klingon Princess’ is one that I named. It’s a greenish-yellow flower, but it has a lot more frills. The colors remind me of the Klingons on Star Trek, but with all those frills, it couldn’t be a warrior — it had to be a princess.”
Chapman says he chose the name when he saw the bloom, and when he saw that it was not listed with the AIS, he quickly registered it.
“Not all the names come to you that easily,” he says.
With 66,850 named varieties already registered through 2012, and about 1,100 new names added annually, it’s not surprising that ‘Klingon Princess’ is a very lucky catch.