Cajun Cooking, Chubby Cheeks, and Dumbledore: The Iris Name Game

Everybody knows to stop and smell the roses, but do you stop to read the signs? Peak Iris bloom is expected to hit around the second week of May, and if you read the name plates, you’ll notice something unusual in the Goodman Iris Garden: the flower names. Among the Irises, you’ll see names like Banana Cream Pie, Ninja Turtles, and Glamour Pants.

Banana Cream Pie Iris. Photo by Tom Incrocci.

So Where Do Those Names Come From?

Each new iris cultivar (specially bred variety of a certain plant) is given a name. “The hybridizer of the cultivar will typically be the one who names it,” says Garden horticulturalist Taylor Leesnitzer. “To become an officially registered cultivar, the progeny is submitted to the American Iris Society, where it is registered and introduced.” Sometimes the flowers are named for their coloring or features, but often they’re named after a family member, pet, or even pop culture interest. That’s when you get names like Dumbledore and Millennium Falcon.

Millennium Falcon Iris. Photo by Tom Incrocci.

How Are New Irises Created?

The world of plant cultivation may seem daunting and complex, but cultivating the iris is surprisingly simple. “Irises are a really accessible and easy place to play with plant breeding,” Leesnitzer says. “No one needs to be a professional by any means to accomplish these crosses…Many of the breeders that I’ve read about kind of started it as a hobby that stemmed from their curiosity about the plants and science, or from their passion for their garden collection.” 

When breeding a new iris cultivar, the process itself isn’t as challenging as the patience that’s needed. First, two irises are selected to be the parent plants. “If a breeder identifies a trait that they deem valuable, they can attempt to reproduce and hone in on that trait,” says Leesnitzer. “Examples could include a very vibrant color, purple-based foliage, fragrance, excellent branching structure, quick proliferation, hardiness, etc.” Once the plants have been selected, they are hand-pollinated by taking the anther of one plant and spreading its pollen on the stigma of the receiving plant. The resulting seeds will be ready to be collected that fall, when they will be planted. In springtime, those seeds will germinate and sprout. Still, the plants won’t be big enough to flower until the following spring, so it usually takes a full two years from the initial pollination just to see the first results of the experiment.

Visitors admire the Goodman Iris Garden in peak bloom. Iris blooms are expected to peak around the second week of May. Photo by Lisa DeLorenzo Hager.

Serious breeders might draw this process out even longer. If the hybridizer is interested in building upon their results or emphasizing a specific trait, they might continue the process from there, breeding the new cultivar itself. “This can continue for many generations, until the desirable outcome is achieved,” Leesnitzer says. “ There are endless possibilities for breeding and improving upon existing cultivars. Irises in particular have been a historically popular plant—around 60,000 new cultivars have been registered since 1929.”

How Are Irises Chosen for Display at the Missouri Botanical Garden?

The Garden works with the Greater St. Louis Iris Society to select new irises for the Goodman Garden. Usually the irises that are chosen have received an award from the American Iris Society or are otherwise especially unique. The plants are grouped into beds, with the most recent additions residing in the northwestern bed closest to the Spink Pavilion. Bed 09N is a registered display garden of the Historic Iris Preservation Society. It features irises that were introduced 30 years ago or more. There’s even a bed devoted to irises named after storybook and cartoon characters at 04N, where you can find the Captain Hook, Amelia Bedelia, Ping the Duck, and Goodnight Moon Irises, among others.

Ping the Duck Iris. Photo by Kristina Schall DeYong.

If there’s a particular iris that catches your eye the next time you visit the Garden, you might get the chance to take it home as your own. “Each summer, we divide any of the iris clumps that are getting a little too crowded and host a big sale for the public to come in and buy Garden irises,” Leesnitzer says. “Again in conjunction with the Greater St. Louis Iris Society, this raises several thousand dollars directly for the horticulture department each year.” The sale will be held on August 3rd and 4th this year.

Iris Name Hall of Fame

Check out the video below to see a few stand-out names from our collection. To see the rest of our the irises in their full glory, make sure to check out the Goodman Iris Garden on your next visit. Iris blooms are expected to peak around the second week of May.

Video by Cassidy Moody.

And while you’ve got Irises on the brain, check out our Twitter to see some Iris names that we’ve featured in honor of the St. Louis Blues going into Game 7.

Featured image is the Bluebeard’s Ghost iris. Photo by Tom Incrocci.

Kristina Schall DeYong
Digital Media Specialist

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