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