Iris is the common and genus name for over 300 species of bulbous, rhizomatous and fleshy-rooted plants native to the Northern Hemisphere. The ancient Greeks called the goddess of the rainbow "Iris," and the plant genus was named in her honor because of the many hues of iris flowers. Various popular species of iris have a host of botanical species names, many of them descriptive of various qualities of specific plants.
Names and Traits
Some iris species are named for traits that characterize their appearance. For example, variegated iris (Iris variegata), was so named because its long, strap-like leaves are striped, or "variegated" in botanical terms. Crested iris (Iris cristata) bears an orange crest on each fall, or downward facing flower part. Algerian iris (Iris unguicularis) gets its Latin species name from "unguicula," which means "with claws." The name refers to the narrow, claw-like shape of the inner petals. English iris (Iris latifolia) derives its species name from its broad leaves. "Lati" is the Latin root for "broad," and "folia" means "leaves." Variegated iris is hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 through 9; crested iris is hardy in USDA zones 4 through 10; Algerian iris is hardy in USDA zones 7 through 9; English iris is hardy in USDA zones 5 through 8.
Iris are also named for places where they grow wild or are commonly found. Japanese iris (Iris japonica) is native to Japan and bears lavender or white frilly flowers. Siberian iris (Iris sibirica) hails from the frigid Russian area of Siberia. Iris tectorum takes its Latin species name from "tecto," meaning "roof." The common name, roof iris, echoes that. Roof iris are relatively short in stature and were once grown on home and building roofs. Japanese iris is hardy in USDA zones 7 through 9; Siberian iris is hardy in USDA zones 3 through 8; roof iris is hardy in USDA zones 5 through 9.
The Latin word "tenax" means "tenacious," a descriptor for of the Pacific Coast iris that bears the Latin name Iris tenax. The flowers are delicate and the stature is small, but the leaves have a reputation for toughness, which gave rise to the name. The Juno iris (Iris magnifica) gets its common name from the statuesque Roman queen of the gods. Magnifica most likely comes from its 12- to 24-inch height. The dwarf iris is only 4 to 6 inches tall, hence its Latin name, Iris pumila -- "pumila" is Latin for "dwarf." Pacific Coast iris is hardy in USDA zones 5 through 9; Juno iris is hardy in USDA zones 6 through 8; dwarf iris is hardy in USDA zones 4 through 9.
Some iris get their Latin species names from people who were in some way associated with the plants themselves or horticulture in general. The regalia iris (Iris korolkowii) is named for General Korolkow, a 19th century Russian military officer who sent the plant from its native Turkestan to St. Petersburg. The beardless Japanese iris (Iris kaempferi) was named for Engelbert Kaempfer, a 17th century German doctor who was the first to send information on Dutch East Indian plants back to Europe. Regalia iris is hardy in USDA zones 8 through 9, and beardless Japanese iris is hardy in USDA zones 4 through 9.
- Gardener's Latin; Bill Neal
- The American Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers; Christopher Brickell, Editor-in-Chief
- UDA Plants Profile: Iris Tenax
- Japanese Gardens in Britain; Amanda Herries
- The Book of Iris; Richard Irwin Lynch and Henry Ewbank
- Photo Credit Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images