Milan, 4 June 2021
On the hikes which my wife and I have been doing around Lake Como, we frequently come across irises blooming in people’s gardens. They are very nice, of course, but what I really admire are those irises which we spy on the side of the path, normally growing out of a small mound of garden waste. Clearly, someone in the vicinity did some clearing in their gardens, which included pulling up some iris rhizomes (their tuber-like roots), and then they just chucked the waste by the side of the path. But these irises are tough. In the face of adversity, they’ve just kept going, rooting into their new environment and continuing to bloom, to the delight of passersby. Unfortunately, the photos which I took at the time of these feral irises have disappeared into the Photo Black Hole in my iPhone, so I throw in this stock photo instead.
I really admire the irises’ toughness. They remind me rather of a similarly tough plant with lovely flowers which I’ve written about earlier, common chicory.
Irises also reach back deep into my subconscious. My mother had planted irises in her garden in the house of my early childhood in Eritrea – or maybe she inherited them from previous renters of the house; that will to survive which I was just mentioning – and small child though I was (I could not have been more than six years’ old), I was awestruck by these lovely, bright, complex-looking flowers, with their sword-like leaves. My memory may be playing tricks with me but I remember them being yellow irises.
Yet another encounter during a walk last week around Lake Como with irises growing out of waste piles has finally persuaded me to take up my electronic pen and write about them.
Not that there’s a huge amount to write about, unless you’re fixated about irises (and a good number of people do seem to be fixated by them). I was rather astonished to discover that taxonomists recognize something like 280 species of iris (there are also thousands of hybrids – the iris is a flower which enthusiasts have loved to fiddle with – but I won’t bother with them; it’s the Real Thing that interests me). Their natural distribution spans much of northern Eurasia, although there are also a number of species which are native to North America. I throw in some photos of irises in their natural habitat, not imprisoned in someone’s garden: as I’ve remarked in an earlier post about tulips, it’s so much nicer to see flowers in their natural state.
A field of irises in North America:
Iris sibirica in Central Europe
Iris haynei in the Middle East
The Nazareth iris, also from the Middle East
Iris lortetii, also from the Middle East
With 280 species to choose from, I suppose I could have added a good deal more photos of wild irises. But I think that will do. I’m struck by the colours I chose; I rather suspect that I wanted to get away from the typical purple and yellow irises one sees in gardens.
Talking of natural states, it seems to me that iris is a bit of a fancy name for a flower, at least in English. Something like mugwort or yellow flag (actually an alternative name for one of the irises) seems more English. In fact, it appears that we owe the flower’s name to the French. Someone there, some time in the 13th Century, noticing that the flower’s petals had iridescent reflections gave the flower the Greek name for rainbow. Perhaps the deep violet colour of many of the species, resembling the violet and indigo bands of the rainbow, also played a part in this naming exercise.
I’m not completely convinced by this explanation of the name; my inspections of the flower don’t show any obvious iridescence; maybe it was the flowers’ way of shading from colour to colour that inspired the French to name it iris.
In any event, I find that this explanation makes more sense to me than the other explanation bouncing around the Internet, namely that the flower was called iris because it comes in all the shades of the rainbow; this clearly is not the case.
Whatever the right explanation, a connection has been made with a Greek goddess, which has given me an excuse to explore this member of the Greek pantheon. She is, I must admit, a very minor member. Her sole role in life was to carry messages from the gods to other gods or mortals. But she did this very prettily, by laying down a rainbow and walking along it to whoever she was delivering a message to. Apparently, there are no ancient statues of her bar one; one of the statues on the frieze of the Parthenon now in the British Museum – I will skate over the passionate arguments that this relocation to London has generated.
Yes, well, I mutter under my breath, how can anyone know who this very bashed up piece of stone is meant to represent? Nevertheless, I bow to the Experts and accept their attribution.
We seem to be on firmer ground when it comes to paintings on Greek pottery. Here we have a picture of Iris on this vase from the 5th Century BC.
Iris was also depicted by those European artists of the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries who went in for classical themes – not my cup of tea, but hey! it takes all sorts to make a world. This particular painting from 1811, by Pierre Narcisse Guerin, falls into this category.
I have to say, it seems to me that the painting is verging on soft porn. In any event, it claims to be portraying a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where Juno sends Iris to give a message to Somnus, the god of sleep – the message is, “send a dream to Alcyone that her husband Ceyx is dead” (any reader who wants to know the backstory is welcome to read the Metamorphoses). Iris throws down a rainbow and walks along it (or slides down it?) into the underworld, where Somnus sleeps away his days and nights. She can barely rouse him from his slumbers but finally manages and delivers the message. She then gets the hell out of there as she feels she is about to fall asleep, and clambers back up her rainbow. I should explain at this point that Somnus has one thousand sons, whose job it is to deliver dreams to us mortals. He summons his son Morpheus, the best deliverer of dreams, instructs him to pass on Juno’s message, and promptly falls back to sleep. Guerin got the story wrong by depicting Iris delivering the message directly to Morpheus. But Somnus was presumably middle-aged while Morpheus was a strapping young fellow, so no doubt Guerin took some artistic license so as to be able to paint a nakedly handsome young man as a worthy companion to the nakedly pretty young woman.
The French not only gave the flower its modern name, they also brought the flower’s heraldic representation, the fleur-de-lys, to great prominence, through the adoption by the French kings of the fleur-de-lys as their heraldic emblem. I have to admit to have been really surprised to discover this connection. Why are fleur-de-lys not called fleur-de-iris, then? The best explanation I’ve come across is that the French kings were descended from a line of Frankish chiefs who had lived originally around the river Lies in Belgium before they invaded France. These Frankish chiefs took as their heraldic symbol the yellow Iris pseudacorus, which grows in abundance along the edges of the River Lies, and which is known in Frankish – their original tongue – as Lieschbloem, the bloom of the Lies. It’s easy to see how that could have been frenchified to fleur-de-lys. Here, we have the Lieschbloem in its natural riverine habitat.
And here we have a comparison of a Lieschbloem in close-up and a fleur-de-lys.
I think one can appreciate that the fleur-de-lys could well be a stylized Lieschbloem. As a clincher, readers should note that the background of the French kings’ armorials was blue (“azure” in heraldic lingo) – a representation of the River Lies? Here are the arms of King Louis XVI.
The kings changed their the number of fleur-de-lys on their arms quite frequently, and I chose him because everyone has probably heard of him – the one who got his head cut off during the French Revolution.
Talking of fleur-de-lys, it was also – still is, actually – the centrepiece of the arms of Florence. But there’s an interesting story to the colour scheme. Originally – we’re talking before 1251 – the colours were a white fleur-de-lys on a red background.
The white Iris florentina grew wild in the area around Florence.
It even grew, it is said, on the city’s walls – this is no longer the case, alas, for the few stretches of the walls still left around Florence.
So I suppose it was quite reasonable for the City Fathers to choose a white iris as the city’s heraldic symbol (why they placed it on a red background I don’t know).
In 1251, the government of the city was in the hands of the Ghibelline faction. I hope my readers are at least vaguely familiar with the fighting between Guelphs and the Ghibellines that roiled pretty much all of the city-states in northern and central Italy in the 12th and 13th Centuries. Here, for instance, we have Guelphs and Ghibellines duking it out in Bologna.
Formally, the Guelphs supported the Popes and the Ghibellines the Holy Roman Emperors in the never-ending feud of these two about who controlled who. But in many cities this was just an excuse to cover local quarrels. In Florence, for instance, it was more about the patricians (Ghibellines) versus the plebs (Guelphs). In 1251, the Guelph faction wrested control of the city from the Ghibellines, and to signal that there had been a definitive political change, the Guelphs switched the colours around on the city’s armorial bearings. I suppose they were in power for long enough for the switch to become definitive, because still today we have a red fleur-de-lys on a white background.
One side-effect of this colour switch was people trying to breed a truly red bearded iris (the group of irises to which Iris florentina belongs) and failing dismally. The judgement of Those Who Know is that there is no truly red iris, bearded or otherwise. Well of course the experts know, but the copper iris from North America looks pretty red to me.
But, once again, I bow to the Experts.
It would seem that the Florentines discovered another interesting thing about their Iris florentina, namely that if you take the plant’s rhizome and dry it for a very long time – 3 to 5 years – reactions slowly take place in the rhizome which eventually lead to the production of chemicals with the fragrance of violets. This fragrance is liberated by crushing the now rock-hard rhizomes to a powder. Catherine de’ Medici brought this alchemist-like knowledge to the French court when she married Henry II of France in 1533. Mixed with rice powder, it eventually became a popular way for Europe’s upper crust to perfume their faces, clothes, and eventually wigs when these later came into fashion. Nowadays, perfumers plant huge fields of a light purple cousin of Iris florentina, Iris pallida.
They dig up the rhizomes, dry them, and then steam distill them to obtain a thick, buttery oil known as orris oil. Eyewateringly expensive stuff – like €100,000 a kilo – it’s used by perfumers to give a base note to their creations.
After all of this, though, I’m sure my readers will agree with me when I say, let’s just forget all the metaphorical, allegorical, or representational bla-bla with which irises have been enveloped, and let’s just enjoy the flowers as they are. So let me close with a couple of paintings of irises by Vincent Van Gogh.