Category Archives: Iris

Size isn’t everything – Iris lutescens

Dwarf iris - Iris lutescens -  the colour variety which gives it its name

Dwarf iris – Iris lutescens – the colour variety which gives it its name

A moment this week which I’ve been anticipating keenly – my first sight of the dwarf iris, Iris lutescens, in the garrigue near where I live. Why is it special? Because it’s beautiful, its form enhanced, in my view, by its modest size – usually only about 20cm high. Its name comes form the Latin for yellow, luteus, but there are common blue and white versions of the same species.

A group of dwarf irises in the sort of terrain they prefer

A group of dwarf irises in the sort of terrain they prefer


Irises – it has to be said, probably the taller species – have impressed us humans for a long time. The upstanding slim pointed leaf-blades have reminded all cultures of spears and swords: the yellow flag iris is called Jacob’s sword in English, and other names such as segg and gladdon or gladwyn betray repectively Anglo-Saxon and Celtic words for swords too. The blue or white irises seen often here on banks and in ditches are Iris germanica, called la cotèla (knife) or la cotelassa (dagger) in Occitan. I think that’s one reason why I prefer the smaller, less warlike dwarf iris – ‘nail-scissor iris’ wouldn’t have the same belligerent ring to it.

The large species have showy flowers, of six tepals (the name used for the similar petals and sepals in this family of plants) carried on long stems, and perhaps for these reasons they were sacred to the ancient Egyptians who used a symbolic representation of the plant on the first sceptres, and they also appear in pictures and artefacts from Babylon.

The Greek goddess Iris portrayed on a drinking vessel

The Greek goddess Iris portrayed on a drinking vessel

The name iris means rainbow in Greek, and it is supposed that the plant was so christened because of the range of vivid colours in each flower, as well as between varieties and species. Greek mythology includes the goddess Iris, who acts as a messenger for the gods, particularly Zeus and Hera, when they need to communicate between each other or with mortals. This may be because the rainbow seems to connect heaven and earth. There are two statues of Iris among the Elgin marbles.

Exactly when the plant acquired its present name is not clear – the term iris is used by Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) in his Natural History, in which he describes in detail the cultivation of irises in northern Europe for their magical and medical properties. Three months before harvesting, the ground around the plant was soaked in honeyed water, and three circles were drawn around it with the point of a sword.

But then this name seems to have been forgotten, and until the 16th century they were commonly given either the sword-names listed above, or fleur de lis or flower de luce. One explanation for the latter is because the yellow flag iris, Iris pseudacorus, grew plentifully by the river Luts (or Lits) in what is now southern Belgium, and a symbolic representation of three of its tepals was adopted by Gaulish and Germanic kings as the well-known heraldic symbol of the fleur-de-lys. It became the emblem of the French royalty since Louis VII, so identified with the royal cause that anyone wearing the flower after the French Revolution was likely to be sent to the guillotine. Napoleon substituted the bee as a national emblem.

The flower pushing its way between stones

The flower pushing its way between stones


The dwarf iris is a tough customer, native to the Mediterranean region of France since it positively thrives in heat, drought, and on poor limestone soils. It’s often dug up for transplanting to gardens, but conditions there may well be too rich for it. In the garrigue you often find it among patches of rock and stone chips where no other plant can get a foothold.
Blue flames

Blue flames


I have other, more personal reasons for my attachment to this flower. It was in a patch of garrigue near M’s house that I first saw a carpet of these flowers, lighting up the hillside like flames, so they remind me of walks we’ve taken together. So to accompany this post, why not Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, because if M asked me if everything is OK, I’d say ‘Yeh, Yeh’.


Size isn’t everything

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New gear resolution

I’d like to start by wishing all of you who have found your way to this blog:

Happy New Year!

Blwyddyn Newydd Dda!

Bonne Année!

Bona annada plan granada!

Many thanks to everyone for your interest and comments since I started last year, and welcome to anyone visiting here for the first time. It’s New Year’s Day, you haven’t got time to read, and nor have I to write much. This is a short post to share some images of flowers taken over the last few days, to show there is life out there in the middle of winter – helped by a recent mild spell with some sunny days when the temperature reached 16 degrees. And of course I’m also showing off my new camera and lens – the title isn’t a typo.

Iris unguicularis

Iris unguicularis

The Algerian Iris (I. unguicularis) – originally from North Africa but grown widely in gardens, and the first Iris to flower. This was in some waste ground next to an electricity substation – it was probably planted there, and has spread and settled. It’s a very low-growing species, and my flower book says the ovary is at or below ground level – amazing, I’ll have to look closer next time.

Geranium rotundifolium

Geranium rotundifolium

I think this is the round-leafed crane’s bill – all the little geraniums look very similar to me.  If I keep at this, I hope I’ll get better at telling them apart.

Euphorbia

Euphorbia

Yes, but which Euphorbia? I’m planning a longer post soon on the great variety of species of spurge round here, because I find them bizarrely fascinating. And I love their shades of green and yellow.  The little yellow star-shapes are nectar glands, and the buds are separate male flowers – the female flower usually grows in the middle of the glands. Found by the side of the road – Chaiselongue said to me, ‘You know, all the people who pass in cars are looking at you strangely – they think there’s only one thing you can be doing crouched down in a ditch.’

Viola alba subsp. dehnadii

Viola alba subsp. dehnadii

The first violet I’ve seen, on the path just by our garden – had to lie flat on the ground to take this. The Latin name is a bit confusing, but there is a white subspecies too (scotophylla) , found in the Balkans.

Resolutions: To work on a comparison of the various spurges, as I’ve said. And other topics I’ve got in mind include something about the social life of plants (yes, really), more on the beach bums of the plant world who survive on the sand dunes, the wonderful plants of the garrigue, a botanic garden mystery ( a Kewdunnit) – and much more. Hope to see you again many more times in 2013.

And there will be more Brazilian music too. Here’s the genius Baden Powell showing how to play with a lit cigarette:

 

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