Society Information

Society Information

The American Iris Society is a nonprofit institution incorporated February 2, 1927, in the County of Philadelphia, State of Pennsylvania. By the terms of the Charter, the Corporation has no stockholders and exists for the sole purpose of promoting the culture and improvement of the Iris. The AIS encourages the cultivation, appreciation, and improvement of this lovely and diverse group of plants through education, exhibitions, field explorations, and gardening activities featuring irises.

New AIS members receive a copy of the AIS publication Basic Iris Culture, an informative booklet that provides useful guidelines for successfully growing irises. AIS members also receive a quarterly publication, IRISES The Bulletin of the American Iris Society. Each issue of IRISES provides approximately 65 pages of fresh information on iris culture, an array of color photographs of both old and new irises, and an advertising directory of commercial iris growers located throughout the United States.

As an AIS member you will be able to learn about and to participate in a wide range of activities and programs:

  • AIS Judges Training Program
  • AIS Youth Program
  • Regional and local affiliated club activities.
    The society is divided into 22 geographic regions each of which has a Regional Vice President and affiliated member clubs. AIS members are automatically members in their local AIS Region. Regional membership brings members current local information via the regional publications.
  • Special interest Sections and Cooperating Societies – Aril, Dwarf, Historic, Median, Japanese, Louisiana, Novelty, Pacific Coast Native, Reblooming, Siberian, Species,  Spuria, and Tall Bearded – these specialty iris groups offer many additional opportunities to increase your iris IQ.
  • AIS Electronic services provide members access to cultivar information and other uniquely internet activities that cater to computer literate iris enthusiasts.

Founding of the AIS: A New York Story by Anner M. Whitehead

In the words of Dr. N. L. Britton, Director of the New York Botanical Garden at Bronx Park, who welcomed those attending the founding meeting of the American Iris Society at eleven o’clock in the morning on January 29, 1920, the weather that day was “arctic.” This must have caused the organizers great trepidation as they in planning had only dared hope for enough attendance, perhaps two dozen enthusiastic folks, to bring the proposed group to life, and foul weather might endanger their dream. Various illnesses inevitably make the rounds in January, and did so in 1920 as well; indeed, Dr. Henry Allen Gleason, the Assistant Director of the Garden, who was supposed to do the welcoming that day, was sick at home. This was surely a great disappointment to him, and to others, for his support had been generous, and he had been instrumental in planning the new group, in conferring upon it sterling legitimacy, and in pointing it in the right direction.

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. 

John C. Wister, a young landscape architect who played an important role in planning the AIS and became its first president, often said that America’s rebirth of interest in garden irises was attributable to Bertrand Farr’s work, specifically his importing a large collection of irises from England and issuing elegant illustrated commercial catalogs beginning in 1908, but most especially his sending an exhibition of irises, including some new ones he had raised from bee pods, to the Pan Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, where the display received a Gold Medal and was seen by many visitors. Undoubtedly this is part of the story, although many other people were also working with irises in Europe and America well before 1915. These included J. N. Gerard of New Jersey, who wrote a series of important articles for the distinguished magazine Garden and Forest and encouraged hybridizer E. B. Williamson’s early work; Sidney Mitchell of Canada and, later, California; George Peterson, nurseryman, of Chicago; Jennett Dean of Southern California, pioneer iris hybridizer and commercial importer of new French originations; and, in the Midwest, the Rev. C. S. Harrison, nurseryman and author, and the Sass brothers of Nebraska. Grace Sturtevant, who won highly publicized prizes from the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1917 for her introductions, had also been very active. Many of these people knew each other, or knew of each other, and much of their activity reflected a renewed international interest in irises in the wake of the work of Sir Michael Foster and his circle in England, work which culminated in the 1913 publication of William Rickatson Dykes’ botanical study, The Genus Iris. In other words, if the seeds sown at the organizational meeting for the AIS grew like Jack’s beanstalk, and they did, it is because those seeds fell on well prepared ground.

The months preceding the meeting saw some public literary activity concerning irises, possibly well coordinated public literary activity. B. Y. Morrison of the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington, who was enormously knowledgeable, published several informative articles, including one in the upscale magazine Country Life for June 1919, called “Irises for all Gardens.” This ran to sixteen oversized pages and featured scrumptious watercolor illustrations, some reproduced from Mr. Dykes’ tome. Along with Robert Sturtevant, Grace Sturtevant’s younger brother, a landscape architect who had worked in the Olmsted firm before the War, Mr. Morrison also sent several intriguing shorter pieces to The Garden Magazine, an influential horticultural journal published by Doubleday, Page and Company, of Garden City, New York. These pieces fostered a growing dialogue on irises in the press, and, in September 1919, Leonard Barron, editor of The Garden Magazine, who would later attend the organizational meeting, published a collection of letters, including one from Arthur Bliss of England, originator of the famous new iris “Dominion”, under the intriguing and energizing heading, “World-Wide is the Interest in Iris.”

The Flower Grower, published in Calcium, New York, by Madison Cooper, less glossy and sophisticated, perhaps, than the aforementioned magazines but certainly no less earnest in its approach to gardening, also carried articles on irises. In early January 1920, it published the formal announcement of the upcoming meeting in Bronx Park, “The Proposed American Iris Society,” written by Grace Sturtevant, who spoke of the recent increase in varieties of garden Irises, and the accompanying need to make good information about them available to the public. She said: “It is high time that some central body should gather together information on Iris matters whether it is the history of our garden favorites, the records of our present varieties or the opportunities for the future.”  Additionally, she shared the very exciting news that Dr. Gleason and the New York Botanical Garden had suggested a cooperative scheme of Trial Grounds with the proposed new society. Now the gestating AIS had a distinguished sponsor, a highly respected public face, and a clearly articulated mission of service.

In his article on the founding of the AIS published in the January 1970, “Golden Anniversary” issue of the Bulletin, Mr. Wister tells us that the invitation to the meeting which was mailed directly to selected members of the horticultural community was written by Dr. Gleason himself, and signed by several prominent parties, including James Boyd, president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, who would chair the upcoming meeting. Others were Lee R. Bonnewitz of Ohio, nurseryman and president of the American Peony Society, founded in Brooklyn in 1903; W. F. Christman, secretary of the Northwestern Peony and Iris Society, founded in Minneapolis in 1917; Mrs. Francis King of the Garden Club of America, social activist and writer; Miss Sturtevant; Mr. Morrison; and Mr. Wister himself. This letter proposed several goals for the new society, among them compiling lists of varieties; undertaking research on pests and diseases; collecting cultural information for different climates; and promoting popular interest in irises through shows, articles, and lectures. In preparation for the gathering, Mr. Wister also conferred with Frank Presby, a prominent New Jersey businessman and horticulturist, about the legal and business aspects of the undertaking and a preliminary “constitution” was drafted for discussion at the organizational meeting, where, article by article, and amendment by amendment, it was pondered and polished.

Many people instrumental in founding the AIS came from the world of Peonies. In addition to those mentioned were Bertrand Farr; Mrs. Edward Harding, author of a recently published book on the subject; and Professor A. P. Saunders, a chemistry teacher at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, who edited the Peony society’s Bulletin and who was to take the minutes at the meeting on January 29. All were personally interested in irises as well as Peonies, of course, but there was also a perception that they might do for the iris what had been done for the Peony earlier in the century when Mr. Farr and others, working closely with Cornell University, had planted trial gardens at Ithaca and, over a course of several years, sorted out the egregiously muddled names so that the genus could be vigorously promoted to the horticultural public. A lot had been learned through that process, and it was thought that much the same sort of thing could, and should, be accomplished for the iris. Indeed, as A. P. Saunders recorded that day, Dr. A. C. Beal, head of the Department of Horticulture, brought to the meeting “a plea to establish at Cornell a trial garden of the Society, and after long discussion on this matter it was turned over to the Board of Directors with directions to cooperate in every way possible with Cornell, but to establish the complete collection at Bronx Park.”  Professors Saunders and Beal, along with Robert Sturtevant, who was elected the AIS’ first Secretary, were also responsible for drafting the final version of the “constitution”, which provided for six Regions with vice presidents. The first RVP of the Eastern states, including their host New York, was B. Y. Morrison.

The AIS was fortunate that the founding was effected not only by enthusiastic people, but also by thoughtful, industrious types, many of whom were, or would become, influential in the world of horticulture. We have mentioned some, but also there were Louise Beebe Wilder, the author of many popular garden books and a columnist for The Garden Magazine; Mary Helen Wingate Lloyd, of the Garden Club of America, who would develop her famous “Iris Bowl”, a remarkable garden in Pennsylvania visited by thousands during the 1920s; and Ethel Anson S. Peckham of New York, who managed the Bronx Park Iris Trial Gardens, and edited the Society’s 1929 and 1939 Alphabetical Iris Check Lists. Each in her time became a Director of the AIS. 

The March 1920, issues of The Garden Magazine and The Flower Grower featured long articles in Robert Sturtevant’s elegant prose about the newly formed American Iris Society. The piece in The Flower Grower, which had been selected as house organ for the AIS, a role it would fulfill for several years, carrying news to the members while the first Bulletins addressed important cultural and historical issues, announced the birth of the Society and declared that it had already attracted well over two hundred and fifty charter members. It also identified the group’s officers and directors; described an ambitious range of proposed projects and the progress that had already been achieved; encouraged members and prospective members to communicate their needs and ideas to the Secretary; and conveyed tentative details for the first annual meeting of the AIS, planned for that June in Philadelphia.

All these remarkable developments, and, indeed, the eighty five years of the American Iris Society and its work which have followed, were largely made possible because on January 29, 1920, people with vision and gumption, encouraged by the leaders of the New York Botanical Garden, gathered in Bronx Park to meet each other and talk, to have a nice lunch and to organize a national iris society. They came in the dead of winter. Putting aside other business, they came on comparatively short notice. Some traveled considerable distances from Tennessee, Virginia, Ohio, or Quebec. They gathered to bring their combined experience and clout to an exciting and important task, and with enthusiasm, and cooperation, they accomplished it.

As published in the AIS Bulletin Number 338 July 2005

The Origins of the American Iris Society Check Lists by Anner M. Whitehead

Among the goals of the American Iris Society (AIS) at its founding in January, 1920, indeed one of the motivating forces leading to that founding, was to confer order upon the names of the garden irises.

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 Irisspecies 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:

“The American Joint Committee on Horticultural Nomenclature was formed in 1915 by committees of the American Association of Nurserymen and of the Ornamental Growers Association. 
“Purposes: As first constituted, the stated purpose of the Committee was to ‘make buying easy’ by bringing about so far as practicable, the consistent use of a single standardized ‘scientific’ name, and a single standardized ‘common’ name for every tree, shrub, and plant in American commerce . . . 
“To establish . . . A well-organized mechanism for the registration and identification of horticultural varieties and the adoption of standard rules of nomenclature for the guidance of those naming horticultural varieties.”

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). 
Ten year compilation of registrations, 1930-1939.
Ten year compilation of registrations, 1940-1949.
Ten year compilation of registrations, 1950-1959.
Ten year compilation of registrations, 1960-1969.
Ten year compilation of registrations, 1970-1979.
1989 Ten year compilation of registrations, 1980-1989.
1999 Ten year compilation of registrations, 1990-1999
2009 Ten year compilation of registrations, 2000-2009
2019 Ten year compilation of registrations, 2010-2019

For 2020 to the present, the registration information is published yearly as single year Registrations and Introductions booklets for reference use until the next 10 year compilation is published.