The iris is more than a lovely (ok absolutely gorgeous) flower.
Of ancient Greek mythology, she is the goddess who personified the rainbow and the messenger of the gods where her rainbow trail could be seen left on her message runs between the Earth and the heavens. True, she was a lower tier deity in that mythology, but served a useful role, and how much “use” do we get from rainbows today, really? Definitely some joy and inspiration, and a nice clue to the presence of isolated rain. Iris was a childhood favorite of mine and still has a special place in my heart. But that’s more because of the plants really.
"Iris, great Juno's [Hera's] envoy, rainbow-clad."
– Ovid, Metamorphoses
Iris genus, in Iridaceae family.
I love that irises are named for this goddess because the flowers can be found in pretty much every color in the rainbow, with a bit of imagination. Green is not so accurately “green”, and many blues tend to be a bit purplish but still some are pretty darn blue…
There are very very dark flowers that are basically black, white, red, orange, yellow, even browns with the most common color among multiple iris species is purple.
The rainbow began symbolizing of gay/ LGBTQ-et al pride in 1978 by design of artist Gilbert Baker who created the first flag upon the urging of Harvey Milk to create a symbol of pride for the queer community. It was a flag because those inspire peoples to rally under them for a joint cause. And the rainbow is already sort of a flag made naturally in the sky, very symbolic with encompassing all the visible colors of light, broken into each wavelength by the natural prisms of rain droplets.
And why is June the month for all colors of the rainbow? Is it the occasional summer shower that the warm sun beams through to create the most rainbows. Well, I wish. June marks the Stonewall Riots of New York City when the queer community got sick of hiding under a constant threat of violence and arrest because of their sexuality or gender identity. Lead by a few drag queens (riot queens!) and initially inspired by the assault and aggressive arrest of a "stone butch" woman, they stood up against oppression, and I like to think Iris of the rainbow helped spread the message.
The first rainbow flags were hoisted on June 25th, 1978 for the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade, also the first Pride Parade. Yet it wasn’t until 1994 that this flag truly became the symbol for Queer pride when Baker made a flag 1 mile long for the 25th Pride and Stonewall riot anniversary. It’s not the bears on the Pride floats that are bearded though. Our rainbow irises can be as well.
Bearded irises are the larger more ruffled group with the distinct stripe of little tiny finger-like protrusions/hairs that basically just guide a pollinator into the complex flower’s depths, where the stamens wait within the flower’s cavity of standards and falls.
They can be seen if you take a full-on view in good light, as two long pollen-loaded rabbit-ears sticking up. Just above them, arching over the anthers like a hood is the stigmatic lip, a petal-like structure holding the hard to see female parts. Iris keeps her secrets camouflaged in lovely colors. Each package of floral anatomy is repeated three times, for each ovary waiting below and flagged by the “petal” sets.
The lower “petals” are called falls and are often very showy with different colored veins and a color patch around the beard, leading pollinators toward the nectar and anthers within, at the base of the standards which are true petals. The landing-pad of the falls are actually the flower’s sepals, not petals. The monocots tend to do that, lilies and irises having showy petal-like floral parts evolved from the protective green sepals that serve to protect the developing flower within. Sometimes the evolution is so pronounce that we can’t really tell what’s a petal anymore, and then they are called tepals. Because irises have a distinct up and down structuring, the ups are the standards (standard petals) and the downs are the falls (duh). And in some species and many varieties, the two types of ‘petals’ can be different colors as well.
There is no variety like that of iris! Roses can come in all the colors as well (maybe even greens) but they don’t have widely differing petal colors on the same flower. Just some variegation. With iris very commonly have. And another trait to love of irises is their hardiness. They are so tough and low maintenance, can grow in high heat or soggy cold climates. As long as they get some warm sun to bloom, there is some species or cultivar that will flourish for you. And there are many native species to the United States. Some irises are even aquatic and there is particularly naughty highly invasive wetland species that can also cause skin burns from its sap- the yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus). Removing these from choking waterways is a bit of a challenge. One of our lovely and mini native species in the PNW- Iris tenax is way cuter and wouldn’t choke a fly.
Look at that precious lil face!!
There are over 200 species of irises across the world (mostly in the northern hemisphere) and over 1000 cultivated varieties. And the genus is subdivided into subgenera with bearded types and beardless, plus bulbous and crested types. I like em burly- gimme a bearded iris any day. Some are over 40” (over 1 meter) tall, others reach less than a foot.
Irises all grow from underground swollen and usually horizontal stems (aka rhizomes), which help make them super hardy and growing in harsher climates. A few species’ swollen stems are more like bulbs than rhizomes, but still quite similar. These swollen rhizomes store nutrients and water for later use and they actually do best with slightly exposed above the soil surface.
Oh, and irises tend to be toxic, as you may have guessed.
Probably not ALL species, but many are known to be toxic either in some or all parts. Another reason they will do well even in a deer-browsed landscape. Many can also cause some degree of skin irritation, though somehow I’ve escaped this in my many interactions with my bearded and small native species. The compounds found in many irises include irisin, irone, iridin and irisine, which I think would make great themed baby names.
Any takers?? Any new mom’s named Iris need some inspiration? Talk about a nerdy and badd-as family. They also have some resinoids and toxic terpenoids, less cool for names.
Another point of whimsy I love about irises, particularly the bearded cultivars, are their names. “Burnt Toffee” is my favorite and a very odd color combo.
Action Packed, Arts and Crafts, Bad Boys, Believe in Tomorrow, Lunch in Madrid, Jungle Warrior, Frisky Frolic, Thundering Ovation (white standards with stripy maroon falls edged in peach), Clarence, Padded Shoulders, I’ll Be Back (a rebloomer, of course, in crisp white with yellow veins at the back sides of the falls), plus Total Recall (I sense Schwarzenegger fans) and even Purr (a soft peach color with a blue beard). I want so much to have a giant iris garden with their labels at each variety and it will look like the oddest graveyard of cartoon characters in mid-winter. “Wench was planted here.” “Mardi Gras Dancer below.”
I wonder who has odder names, iris or rose cultivars?
See more for an easy giggle: https://www.trailsendiris.com/irises/by_name.htm
I am on the look-out for all rainbow plants this month, to celebrate the vast diversity of all life, plant and person. Among the celebration of June Diversity, we can't leave out June-teenth and the final announcement of the end of enslaving people in the United States. Much like the gay uprising in '69, the struggle still continues, for so many people. Just knowing that is at least a small progress. Like irises, our species is still evolving and developing new strengths and resilience. And like the amazing floral oddities we cherish for our gardens, we should cherish diversity and the 'weird ones'. Maybe I'm biased though (well, we all have unconscious biases, but I mean the OTHER kind).
I am super weird. So I built my own garden. And I wish you your own to flourish in!
Now to build my iris wish-list. I'll start with this one.