Dear Readers, when I was at Camley Street Natural Park a few weeks ago, I was very taken by these splendid seeds. They belong to the stinking iris (Iris foetidissima), so-called because its leaves are said to smell ‘beefy’ when crushed – one of the plant’s alternative names is ‘roast-beef plant’. Furthermore, it’s also known as gladdon, Gladwin’iris and Stinking Gladwin, with all of these names apparently referencing the Latin word ‘gladius’ meaning sword, and referring to the shape of the leaves.
It’s a very pretty, delicate plant when in flower, as you can see.
This is a native plant, found south of Durham, and it is normally found (in my experience) in damp, shady places. It’s said to prefer calcareous soils, but it was doing very nicely on the clay in the reserve. Richard Mabey (in Flora Britannica) mentions that it’s a plant often found in churchyards, where it was planted not for its modest flowers, but for its bright orange berries, so popular for harvest festival arrangements and grave-top bouquets.
The Plant Lore website mentions that, like other plants with brightly-coloured berries, stinking iris was associated with snakes – in the Isle of Wight it’s known as ‘snakes’ fiddles’. Whether the plant is thought to attract or repel reptiles is something of a mystery. However, the fruits are very popular with birds, particularly blackbirds, who will carry them far and wide.
Much of the detail on medicinal uses of the plant come from Ireland: the leaves can be roasted, sewn together and worn around the neck as a cure for tonsillitis or mumps, and the juice is said to be a cure for dropsy. The plant is poisonous, however, and in Mrs. Grieves ‘A Modern Herbal‘ (published at the beginning of the 20th century), the author describes how stinking iris has been:
“employed for the same medicinal purposes as the Yellow Flag and is equally violent in its action. A decoction of the roots acts as a strong purge. It has also been used as an emmenagogue and for cleansing eruptions. The dried root, in powder or as an infusion, is good in hysterical disorders, fainting, nervous complaints and to relieve pains and cramps.”
So don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Now, here’s an interesting photo, by Patrick Roper, taken in East Sussex. He speculates that ants may play a part in the pollination of the stinking iris, and they certainly seem to be paying a lot of attention to the flower. I haven’t noticed the usual bees and hoverflies on my yellow flag irises, but according to the interwebs bees are still the main pollinators. Nonetheless I think that ants can often be involved in transporting pollen from one place to another, albeit unwittingly.
Of the many moths in the UK, only the caterpillars of the rosy minor (Litoligia literosa) seem to have developed a taste for stinking iris.The camouflage on the adult below is particularly striking.
And finally, a poem. I love this, by Louise Glück. I’m not completely sure that she’s talking about a stinking iris, but it will do.
The Wild Iris
At the end of my suffering
there was a door.
Hear me out: that which you call death
Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.
It is terrible to survive
buried in the dark earth.
Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.
You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.
Photo One by Ben Sale from UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons