Archive for the ‘Perennial’ Category


Sunday, May 3rd, 2009

It’s May! According to the Japanese flower calendar, May is the month of the iris.

<i>Iris</i> 'Starwoman'

Iris 'Starwoman'

The iris takes both its scientific and common names from the Greek goddess of the rainbow. Iris was also the messenger of Hera and, like the rainbow itself, was a physical link between the mortal earth and the gods. Iris’ other job was to lead the souls of dead women and girls to the Elysian Fields–supposedly the ancient Greeks planted purple irises on the graves of women in tribute.

The iris as a symbol of power or mysticism was not limited to the Greeks. The ancient Egyptians associated the three largest petals of the iris with faith, wisdom and valor, according to Lehner and Lehner’s [Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees]. The iris was also associated with the sphinx, another female entity.

Blue iris with Mary from an unnamed artist

Blue iris with Mary from an unnamed artist

In Christian tradition, the iris was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Blue is a popular color in depictions of Mary, so often blue irises are used to represent Mary in her role as Queen of Heaven. In contrast, white iris are sometimes used alongside or in lieu of white lilies to represent Mary’s purity. [HolyPlants] also cites the iris as a sign of Mary’s sorrows.

The iris is also the commonly accepted inspiration for the fleur-de-lis, but there are numerous legends about the hows, whys, and whos of its adoption as a symbol of France. One of the stories cited in the book I’m currently reading is that in the first century Clovis, founder of the Merovingian dynasty, won a huge battle against the Alemanni. In celebration, the Frankish soldiers had a flower-power party and adorned themselves with irises fortuitously growing nearby.

<i>Iris tectorum</i> 'Alba'

Iris tectorum 'Alba'

Because it’s such and old and popular plant, there are [thousands of varieties] of iris and many of these are spectacular perrenials here in the Triangle. Irises come in a staggering array of shapes, sizes and colors (though blues, whites, and yellows are the most common). When visiting the J.C. Raulston Arboretum this spring I’ve seen irises nearly as wide as my head and irises much smaller than my fist–and I have tiny girl hands. Irises are usually be purchased as rhizomous roots but potted irises can be planted outdoors. Irises tend to perform best in full sun or mostly full sun and well-drained soil. A soil that’s too wet through the cold season can rot the root crown. Irises are also [easy to divide] after they’re done flowering–just be careful not to snap the biggest roots when breaking apart the crown.

The iris also has a unique flower structure. The lower petals are actually huge, colorful sepals (a leaf-like structure at the base of a flower–think the little leftover leafy things at the bottom of and apple or the base of a rose). These drooping sepals are called falls while the upright petals are called standards. The lighter parts of the flower in the diagram draw attention (and pollinators!) to the center of the flower.


Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

The common garden hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis and cultivars) is just starting to come up here in the Triangle, so be on the look out for blooming in the next few weeks. It’s also a highly perfumed flower so planting it near your doors, windows, and walkways can have huge impact for the nose as well as a splash of color for the eyes.

In flower, the plant itself is around eight to ten inches tall with the inflorescence rising above the glossy, green leaves. The spread of each individual plant is about five inches, making them ideal for clumping. The most common flower color is a medium bluish purple, but it comes in a range of pinks, whites, yellows, and even some burgundy cultivars.

hyacinthus_orientalis_white_festival_march2009“Hyacinth” corresponds to the name of a Spartan youth and hero whose name anglicizes to Hyacinthus. The version retold in Ovid’s [Metamorphoses] boils down to Hyacinthus a horrible discus accident with his lover Apollo. Apollo threw the discus and Hyacinthus, hoping to impress his deity bro, tried to go catch it. It went terribly awry and struck him in the head, killing him. Apollo, in his grief, created a flower from Hyacinthus’ spilled blood. I prefer the more salacious story from [Encyclopedia Mythica]: Apollo and Zephyr, god of the west wind, were rivals for Hyacinthus’ affections. When Hyacinthus chose Apollo, it was Zephyr that blew the errant discus into Hyacinthus’ head in vengeance.

A good time to plant most spring flowering bulbs like hyacinth and daffodils in the warm Southeastern climate is November. Hyacinth bulbs are widely available from bulb distributors, garden centers, and the usual large chains. The leaves should not be cut back after the plant flowers so that the bulb can gather and store energy to bloom the next season. If the leftover leaves don’t fit in with your landscape, try planting them interspersed with summer blooming flowers like day lilies.

If you’d like blooming hyacinth indoors in pots or to use as cut flowers they can be easily forced indoors. Plant your bulbs in pots and then store them in the refrigerator for about three months. Don’t forget to water them during this period! After that, the bulbs can be moved to a sunny window to warm up and bloom.


Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

Be on the lookout for winter-blooming hellebore species. This typically low-growing, herbaceous perrenial sports showy, petal-like bracts that can persist well into the spring–much longer than its small flowers. Their color spectrum includes greens, creams, and even flushes of red and purple. The foliage is extremely frost-hardy and variable in its generally slender shape and verdance.

Hellebore (Helleborus spp.) also has a lengthy history in folklore. Known alternately as “witch weed” and “Christ rose”, toxic hellebore (active alkaloid: helleborin) has been used in folk healing as well as poison-making. Its frost-resistance and winter blooms were thought to be evidence of magical constitution. Hellebore tinctures were also used as a treatment for “winter melancholy” for this very reason–an original treatment for what we’ve developed as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Ingesting helleborin causes diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea–it was never used as a purgurative for the weak, even in antiquity.