Dear Readers, I have always loved irises, but have never been able to grow them. This surprises me somewhat, as the big yellow flag irises that grow in the wild, damp places of the UK would seem to be perfectly adapted to taking over my pond, but they refuse to do anything other than wither and die. Similarly, whenever, against my better judgement, I buy a bunch of irises for a vase, they turn papery and grey without ever opening. So I was pleased to see these little chaps in full flower in Fortis Green, just round the corner from my house. Their delicate lilac-blue flowers with their custard-coloured tongues were almost shocking against the dead leaves.
Irises are a big, diverse group of plants, and are named for Iris, the goddess of the rainbow. Iris is said to have been a messenger of the gods, and crops up regularly in The Iliad. Like the rainbow, she is said to have linked heaven and earth and would often help intercede on behalf of humans, bringing their prayers to the attention of the gods.
A minor digression here – I have always been very fond of the paintings of John Atkinson Grimshaw – I know that they are deeply unfashionable these days, but I love his depictions of the wet streets of Victorian cities. They are so atmospheric that they seem to beg for a story of dubious goings on at the waterfront, or of ladies shopping before Christmas. See what you think.
But, back to the iris. The ‘design’ of the flower is an example of a plant that, in its natural state, has co-evolved with the insects that pollinate it. Three of the petals seem to ‘clap hands’ in the centre of the flower (the ‘standards’), with the other three petals curling down like lolling tongues (the ‘falls’). The lower petals form a landing stage for insects, and the shape of the sexual organs means that after pollen is deposited on the back of a bee, it can only be transferred to another flower, rather than pollinating the same one. Of course, the appearance of the flower has been mightily changed by horticulturalists over the years, but this basic structure largely remains, regardless of the colour or size of the bloom.Siberian iris is native to Europe and Central Asia, and its range extends as far north as Lake Baikal in Siberia. It is also naturalized in various states of the US and in Ontario in Canada. It was brought to Northern Europe as early 1500 by monks, and was first cultivated in the UK in 1596. It can be found in growing wild in damp, wooded areas, but seems to be slow to spread, unlike many other waterside plants. It grows from rhizomes rather than bulbs, and division seems to be the best way of raising new plants. Vita Sackville-West noted that Siberian irises
‘will do well by the waterside in a fairly damp bed, although it does not like being drowned underwater all year round.’
Maybe this is where I’m going wrong with my irises.
The flowers of this iris have been used to produce yellow cloth by the Tartar people of Western Siberia, and there is lots of information on the Interwebs for those who want to use iris flowers as dye. Medieval illuminators used a colour called iris green, and during my research I have discovered the website ‘Threadborne’ by Wendy Feldberg. She has several posts on using irises of various kinds as dye and as ink, which I found absolutely fascinating. You can have a look here.
The root of the plant is said to be good for coughs, and it is also said that the Chinese made an edible starch from it. ‘The Mysteries of Human Reproduction‘ by Dr. Raymond Bernard mentions that Siberian brides eat the cooked fruit of the Siberian iris before their wedding night to increase fertility. This is probably an improvement over the poor brides of Kamchatka, who apparently eat spiders to create the same effect. Sadly, the rhizome is also apparently poisonous, and handling it can cause dermatitis. As always, caution is advised.
As you might expect, such a splendid plant has inspired many artists, not the least of which, Vincent Van Gogh, is another of my favourites. The painting below shows bearded irises rather than Siberian ones, but hey. I love the way that my eye is drawn to the single white iris on the left, plus that sunny spread of marigolds in the corner. That such a joyful, sun-filled picture could be created by someone who struggled so hard with depression fills me with a kind of hope.
And here is a puzzle. As you know, I do like a bit of poetry, so here is ‘Iris’ by William Carlos Williams.
A burst of Iris so that
come down for
we searched through the
sweetest odor and at
first could not
source then a blue as
of the sea
startling us from among
But here’s the thing. You can make perfume from the rhizome of some species of iris – it’s known as orris root, and is incredibly expensive as the root has to be dried for three to four years before being turned into ‘orris butter’, and it has to be protected from fungal and insect attack for all that time. The scent is described on The Perfume Society website as
‘ sweet, soft, powdery, suede-like – rather like violets, which we tend to be more familiar with as a scent‘.
However, I have never come across an iris flower that had a scent. Is it just because mine tend to die as soon as bring them home, as if struck by a ray gun? Or am I missing something? Or is the poet delusional? This was, after all, the man who ate all the plums in the fridge without so much as a by-your-leave, so he might not be completely reliable.
I do hope someone can enlighten me…..
Photo One by By DavidAnstiss – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42714932
Photo Two by Kor!An (Андрей Корзун) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons