(…) New members, and particularly new officers, need to know: Why the Society was started; how it was started; who started it and what kind of people they were; what they tried to, and what they were able to accomplish; what, in the early years, particularly, they were not able to undertake or to carry out successfully.
John C. Wister in the preface to the 50th anniversary bulletin
But neither illness, nor inclement weather, nor lingering hangovers, for
Prohibition also became effective January 29, 1920, could quell the
momentum toward founding the AIS. This momentum had been growing for the
past year, or five years, or ten, or even twenty years, as one might
count it, and upwards of sixty intrepid souls from several parts of the
country and diverse segments of the horticultural world answered the
private entreaties and public announcements which had gone out over
previous weeks, and trudged through those arctic conditions to the
meeting. They came to enjoy the company of like minded folks, and to
organize a national iris society, and when they left the Garden later
that day, they had one.
The Origins of the American Iris Society Check Lists
William Rickatson Dykes’ monograph, The Genus Iris, published in 1913 by Cambridge University Press, was adopted by the new society as its botanical authority, but the nomenclature of the horticultural varieties was understood to be in disarray.
This condition had apparently prevailed at least since 1851, when Boston nurseryman Joseph Breck in The Flower Garden; or Breck’s Book of Flowers, commented, “There are many other fine Iris in cultivation with which there has been such a hocus-pocus game played by the florist, that it is impossible to tell their origin.” The muddled names in his own book confirm the validity of Breck’s concerns.
Confusion persisted through the latter decades of the nineteenth century, decades in which bearded irises waned in popularity in North America and Europe while newly discovered Iris species and the exotic Japanese irises rose to prominence, accompanied by their own nomenclature challenges.
Then, toward the turn of the new century, interest in hardy perennials generally began to reawaken. As irises became an object of study and development in informed gardening circles in the USA and abroad, it became apparent that the problem had continued to smolder. Vernacular names abounded. Many named varieties were remarkably similar. Some people even suggested that the situation was exacerbated by wholesalers renaming older cultivars to meet, and fan, the growing demand for novelties. In any case, by the second decade, it was common knowledge that the names of many irises in trade were dubious.
This situation was not unique to Iris. In 1923, reflecting efforts to address the needs of the commercial horticulture community and its customers, the American Joint Committee on Horticultural Nomenclature published a reference book called Standardized Plant Names. The preface to the first edition, as quoted in the revised edition of 1942, reads:
In 1917, this committee had issued a Statement of the Problem in which some known causes of confusion, ranging from learned disagreements among botanists to concatenating errors among nurserymen, were discussed at length and the consequences thereof stated, thus: “the plantsman and buyer become perplexed and discouraged, and proper interest is not awakened. This often results in the over-use of the commoner and less worthy trees and plants, to the exclusion of many beautiful things.”
Clearly, if Iris was to be elevated to a position of prominence commensurate with the enthusiasm of the founders of the new American Iris Society, something earnest, authoritative, and comprehensive was going to have to be done about the notorious names mess, and sooner rather than later.
Many people involved in the AIS were also associated with the American Peony Society. Beginning early in the century, this group achieved considerable success in sorting the confused nomenclature of the genus Paeonia, with much attention focused on direct visual comparison of plants and blossoms grown in special test gardens established at Cornell University. These people were mindful of what might be accomplished for Iris, and, the Great War now behind them, they directed their attention to the task.
In June, 1919, John C. Wister, who would become the first president of the AIS, began compiling from diverse sources a “check list” of the names of Iris varieties. Additions were contributed by Robert S. Sturtevant, later the first editor of the AIS, by the distinguished nurseryman E. H. Krelage of the Netherlands, who had inherited a remarkable collection of horticultural ephemera, and many others. The working “check list,” maintained in typewritten form, eventually went through six revisions.
In January, 1922, a version of the revised list comprised solely of the names of those irises believed to be currently in commerce, with a few known synonyms thereof, was published by the AIS as its Bulletin Number 4. This was prepared by the Society specifically for Standardized Plant Names, and publication to the members was underwritten by several prominent commercial iris growers, among them Lee Bonnewitz of Ohio, Jennett Dean of California, Bertrand Farr of Pennsylvania, Grace Sturtevant of Massachusetts, the Peterson Nursery of Chicago, and the Rainbow Iris Gardens of Minnesota.
Additions and corrections to Bulletin Number 4 were solicited from its readers, and, these having been mulled and culled, the final revision was published in October, 1923, as AIS Bulletin Number 8, formatted as it had appeared in Standardized Plant Names.
The 1920s were a productive decade. New, genetically complex, modern irises were introduced into trade by hybridizers in the USA and abroad. Classification systems for Iris were debated, especially at the first International Conference on the Iris, convened in Paris in 1922. Consensus in this matter would prove elusive, but the AIS proceeded purposefully forward. Seminal publications geared toward the general reader also appeared, notably USDA Farmers’ Bulletin 1406: Garden Irises, by B. Y. Morrison (1926), Ella Porter McKinney’s Iris in the Little Garden (1927), and John C. Wister’s The Iris (1927). AIS test gardens were planted, and the process of sorting out and evaluating cultivars, new and old, began.
The AIS also established a Registrar’s office, with Charles Gersdorff as Registrar, and Ethel Anson S. Peckham as Recorder. They sent forth a flurry of correspondence inquiring about the histories of nurseries, hybridizers, and irises. A reference collection of commercial catalogs was assembled, and books and periodicals in private collections and horticultural libraries were pored over for all meaningful references to Iris, some dating to the Renaissance.
Throughout the 1920s, then, as irises rose to unprecedented popularity in North America and Europe, among the most pressing goals of the new AIS was to ascertain which varieties circulating under different names were, in fact, the same plant, and to determine which, among a murky and churning sea of Iris names were original, and thus legitimate, so that each Iris cultivar, past, present, and future, might carry one “approved” name which identified it uniquely.
A compilation of the fruits of the decade’s activity appeared in 1929 as the American Iris Society Alphabetical Iris Check List, edited by Mrs. Peckham. The book contains about twelve thousand names of “species, forms of species, horticultural varieties, and synonyms,” introduced by useful notes. Approved names carry brief coded descriptions, including a reference to a color-based classification system devised by the nurseryman F. X Schreiner of Minnesota, which had been introduced in Wister’s book.
The intent of the Society in issuing the Check List, as explained by President Wister in his introduction, was, “to publish all that is known about Iris names that have appeared in gardening literature during the last hundred or more years. . . . make it so easy for those who introduce new varieties, to avoid name duplication and confusion, that those who persist in this practice in the future may well be branded as either ignorant, careless or deliberate deceivers.” Moreover, he asserted, “We believe that this present work will stand for many years as the most complete book of reference on the Iris.”
And so it did stand as the most complete and authoritative work of its kind until publication of the American Iris Society 1939 Alphabetical Iris Check List, again compiled and edited by Mrs. Peckham. This, as she tells us in her preface, contains some nineteen thousand names, with the increase reflecting registration of new cultivars, the fruits of ongoing research, and corrections of earlier literature. Not surprisingly, it proved too exhaustive a document to be included in the new Standardized Plant Names.
The 1939 Check List subsumes and corrects the 1929 Check List. Brief, but useful, notes on hybridizers, botanists, publications, and commercial nurseries introduce the nearly six hundred pages of densely abbreviated material. Synonyms and muddled names are clarified, and coded bibliographical citations, notes on awards, and pedigrees, where known, are included. Although there are documented errors– clerical errors, errors of fact, errors of judgment– and probably errors as yet undiscovered, it is generally agreed that the level of accuracy is high.
Few single volume horticultural reference works can claim to make available so remarkable a quantity of fascinating information as does the 1939 Alphabetical Iris Checklist. In his introduction, Dr. Harry H. Everett, President of the AIS at its publication, described it as “a book of high adventure in the field of beauty, a record of hopes achieved, and a guide to Rainbow’s end.”
As the world emerged from the Second World War, there was renewed interest in developing a standard for the naming of garden plants, a new set of rules distinct from the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature which serves the scientific community. In 1952, William T. Stearn, representing the Royal Horticultural Society at the International Botanical Congress in Sweden, proposed such a standard, and, in 1953, The International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants was published.
The Code is administered as voluntary treaty under the aegis of the United Nations’ commerce committee, with designated groups or individuals in participating countries overseeing specific plant genera, or portions thereof. These groups and individuals are the International Cultivar Registration Authorities.
In 1955, the AIS, having long demonstrated its commitment to maintaining “a well-organized mechanism for the registration and identification of horticultural varieties,” was asked to accept the responsibility of serving as International Cultivar Registration Authority for all non-bulbous cultivars of the genus Iris, an honor it carries to this day.
Please note: The AIS Check Lists are available to purchase through the AIS Storefront section of the AIS website. For full details on these publications please go to the AIS Storefront.
AIS CHECK LISTS: Each of these are books that provide a ten year compilation of
iris registrations and introductions (R&I).
For 2000 to current the registration information is published yearly as single year Registrations and Introductions booklets for reference use until the next 10 year compilation is published.
Just as an individual has a written signature which he or she affixes to documents to signify authorship, personal approval, or legal assent, so an organization, like the American Iris Society, which conducts its business through the actions of a Board of Directors, has a Seal, which serves as its signature.
The physical presence of the official Seal signifies the legal presence of the organization. The Seal may indicate accord or approval, or it may indicate that an action has been taken, or a document published, under the authority of the organization. The legal potency of a Seal distinguishes this unique category of graphic image from a commercial trademark, a corporate logo, or a purely decorative motif.
Over the years, the signature of the American Iris Society has taken two handsome and distinct forms. Each version of the AIS Seal arose during a period of vigorous growth, and each might be said to reflect the Society’s self image and public posture at the time of its adoption.
The first AIS Seal was introduced by B. Y. Morrison in the January, 1929 issue of the Bulletin of the American Iris Society. It was featured on the title page of the 1929 American Iris Society Alphabetical Iris Check List, and again on that of the 1939 Check List. It was still in use in 1947, when it appeared in The Iris: An Ideal Hardy Perennial, the first book published by the AIS to promote garden irises, and it appeared on the title page of the 1949 Alphabetical Iris Check List.
John C. Wister, sitting President of the AIS at the time of the Seal’s first appearance, did not discuss the Seal in his historical accounts of the early days of the Society; however, Mr. Morrison’s account from the January, 1929 Bulletin, “The Making of the Seal,” is instructive:
Before planning the design of the seal for the Society, an effort was made to collect material which would relate to the Iris in mythology and art in special relation to design. The old myth of Iris, the messenger of the gods, furnishes the rainbow symbol, and the history of France the conventional fleur-de-lys figure [. . . .] Aside from this, there is little to be found in conventionalized design, although almost portrait-like figures appear in Persian miniatures, in Persian ceramics, in French tapestries and in Japanese bronzes, inlays, wood carvings and textiles.
Considered purely from the basis of design, the Iris flower, which is strongly three-parted, suggests the triangle both in silhouette and plan. This makes a difficult relation to the conventional circular pattern of the seal and necessitated a further search for ideas which would be related to Iris lore and history.
Among the old garden books known to the writer is a copy of the “Herbolario Volgare,” in which the illustrations, apparently woodcuts, have a singular force and beauty from the great simplification which was necessary in cutting the blocks. In this is an extremely decorative figure which was used both for the Iris and the rush (acorus). The same block appears in other herbals [. . . .] The book itself is a translation of an earlier German “Herbarius,” of which the first known dated edition is from Mainz in 1484. There were many later editions and some translations [. . . .]
At any rate the figure in the Italian edition was used to furnish the main part of our design and represents undoubtedly an apogon iris, probably Iris pseudacorus. The drawing has been modified very slightly to fit the circular form and the stork wading in the conventional waves has been omitted. The highly conventional rendering of the flowers is interesting in that in some there is an approximation of the conventional French design of the “fleur de lys” [. . . .] The rainbow symbol is carried in the seven-banded border which surrounds the upper part of the seal.
From these details, freely borrowed, the writer, as a “compiler” rather than as a “designer” has made the seal illustrated, believing that they are more interesting than any pattern he might invent or any symbolism that he might create and that this conventional treatment is more suited to the purposes of the design than the more life-like representations that are so often used.
It is entirely characteristic of the early AIS that the first Seal should involve a graphic image of great antiquity, and interesting provenance. Many prominent members were engaged with the genus on an intellectual, and an artistic level. Grace Sturtevant, the early hybridizer, was also a trained botanical illustrator who grew up with the remarkable collection of pre-Linnaean botanical literature formed by her distinguished father, Dr. E. L. Sturtevant. Her younger brother, Robert, was a landscape architect, much interested in subtle coloristic effects in the garden. J. Marion Shull’s Rainbow Fragments: A Garden Book of the Iris, 1931, was illustrated with the author’s own paintings of individual Iris cultivars. Ethel A. S. Peckham's watercolor studies of beardless Iris species garnered her a Gold Medal from the British Iris Society. While the paintings by Mrs. Horatio Gates Lloyd, an AIS Director from 1921 to 1930 famous for the immense “Iris Bowl” in her garden in Pennsylvania, could not be called noteworthy, her collection of antiquarian horticultural literature unquestionably was.
And B. Y. Morrison, simply stated, was a genius. In Rainbow Fragments, Mr. Shull observed:
“The fairies that stood sponsor at the birth of B. Y. Morrison must have been in doubt as to what special gift they should bestow on him, so to give him a choice they placed within his reach, art, music, literature and science. Whereupon he grasped them all and refused to part with any of them.”
Having earned a Master’s Degree in Landscape Architecture from Harvard in 1915, Benjamin Yoe Morrison traveled for a year in the Far East, studying Japanese art and architecture. Subsequently, he joined the Bureau of Plant Industry of the United States Department of Agriculture. A superior draftsman who illustrated his own Garden Irises: U. S. Department of Agriculture Farmers’ Bulletin No. 1406, published in 1926 with an image derived from a Renaissance source on the cover, he also created the sophisticated woodcuts of botanical subjects which for many years graced the journal of the American Horticultural Society, of which he served both as President, and the longtime Editor. In the 1930s, he served as Secretary and Editor of the AIS. A plant hybridizer of renown, he was also the designer and first director of the United States National Arboretum.
These remarkable people, and other early members of the Society, were interested in Iris history, and in the literature thereof. Mrs. Peckham undertook investigations to document the manifold origins of the fleur-de-lys motif. The early Bulletins, edited by Robert Sturtevant, presented not only Society business and discussions of new cultivars and scientific advances of the day, but also articles on the history of garden irises, including those as ancient as Gerard's Great Herball, of 1597. Dr. Krelage, a much respected nurseryman in the Netherlands, contributed a seminal article, “The Development of the Tall Bearded Iris in the 19th Century.” Not surprisingly, in a period when Colonial Revival herb gardens were a horticultural rage in North America, the role of Iris in perfumery and early European medicine also received attention. Clearly, those members whose contributions provided much of the impetus for the AIS’s remarkable growth during the first decade of its existence intended the Society to support historical research as well as scientific study, education, and the development and personal enjoyment of modern hybrid irises.
It is in this context that Mr. Morrison, working within the traditional circular format, combined a primitive scientific representation of a water iris from an archaic Continental herbal, and an abstract motif representing the Rainbow, the emblem of Iris the Messenger and an internationally recognized symbol of a future bright with hope, to create the Society’s first Seal.
The later Seal was developed in the middle years of the twentieth century, during that vital period of rapidly expanding activity following the grim hiatus of World War II in which the AIS optimistically reinvented itself as a horticultural organization.
In these years, the Society accepted the responsibility for serving as the International Cultivar Registration Authority for all non-bulbous cultivars of the genus Iris, which honor enhanced its public profile worldwide, and necessitated organizational changes. A formal classification system for the garden irises was established, and the Awards system was revised. Special interest groups emerged from within the Society to provide members attracted to one or another category of iris greater opportunities for interaction with like-minded enthusiasts. Work also began on Garden Irises, the Society’s second major book on the subject, edited by Dr. L. F. Randolph of Cornell University, which was published in 1959.
In October, 1957 Marion Walker, then President of the AIS, noted in the Bulletin that members were expressing interest in the Society having a seal. He observed that, in fact, the AIS already had one, although it been “overlooked in recent years.” He also announced that a committee had been formed to “make better use of the AIS Seal.” The published record is short on details, but, over the next few months, this committee’s directive apparently changed, so that, ultimately, their task was to recommend a design for a new official Seal to the AIS’s Board of Directors for approval.
Hubert A. Fischer, who would in 1963 become the eleventh President of the Society, was the Chairman of the Seal Committee. A prominent wholesale dealer of precious gems in Chicago, a philanthropist, and an internationally renowned horticulturist whose extensive personal gardens at his estate in Hinsdale, Illinois, were spectacular by any standard, he was uniquely suited to a project the successful resolution of which required a judicious balancing of diplomacy and sensibility.
Writing in the January, 1970 “Golden Anniversary Issue” of the Bulletin, Mr. Fischer remembered:
“I was appointed the head of a committee to design an official seal for the Society. This seemed a simple assignment until sketches and suggestions were received. It should be a tall bearded; it should be a beardless; [. . .] one sketch included a half dozen types. I realized that the design must be kept in simple form, so I asked my brother, a newspaper artist, to design a seal to represent an iris but of no definite type. The result was a design of modernistic form, but not too far out. Of the number submitted for final selection, it was chosen with a few minor changes.”
These minor changes were apparently effected at the 1958 Annual AIS Convention in Syracuse, New York. Speaking in the July, 1958 Bulletin, Marion Walker supplied an intriguing detail: “The drawing was prepared by the committee in cooperation with the artist at the Bailey Hortorium at Cornell.”
Neither artist’s name appears in the record, and Hubert Fischer’s artist brother’s name remains a mystery; however, in 1958, the staff artist of the Liberty Hyde Bailey Hortorium at Cornell University was Miss Mitsu Nakayama, who, interestingly, is also credited with drafting the Hortorium’s emblem.
Among the AIS members in New York State was Dr. George H. M. Lawrence, the distinguished taxonomist who would become the founding Director of what is now the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie-Mellon University. At the time, Dr. Lawrence, who also contributed to the development of the AIS’s new classification system, was serving as the Director of the Hortorium, having succeeded his teacher, Dr. Liberty Hyde Bailey, in the position. It seems likely that it was Dr. Lawrence who brought the members of the Seal Committee, and his staff artist, together.
The Fischer-Nakayama design features a remarkably dynamic and graceful representation of a generic iris, presumptively Mr. Fischer’s work, framed by, but not confined within, a well-proportioned oval cartouche bearing the name of the Society. The double exterior line delimiting the border of the oval, distinctively paired with a single interior line, and the inclusion of the founding date of the Society within the field of the Seal, resemble the Bailey’s emblem, and thus may be attributable, in whole or part, to Miss Nakayama.
Approved by the AIS’s Board of Directors on June 4, 1958, the new Seal made its official debut in Garden Irises, albeit with the founding date stated incorrectly. The abstract, or, as Mr. Morrison would say, “conventional,” iris motif has also enjoyed a graphic life independent of the Seal, as a decorative motif.
Whereas the first Seal featured a sophisticated image, one of great dignity, but unquestionably arcane, the American Iris Society’s new Seal was a triumph of lucidity. With its elegant proportions, and engaging simplicity, it remains as powerful today as when first adopted fifty years ago as the signature of an organization then stepping forth eagerly to bring its message to the modern horticultural world.
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