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The Garden Gate: Beautiful iris worthy of name fit for a goddess

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

The beautiful iris blooming in our gardens with elegance is worthy of the goddess for whom it was named.

Tennessee’s state flower was one of the more popular of spring flowers in gardens of medieval Europe, and it is still one we greet with joy in our own spring gardens.

Some of us refer to these flowers as flags or, if we are French, fleur de lys.

About 200 species of iris can be found in the north temperate zone. The flower is native to Asia, and about 30 different species grow wild in the eastern United States and Mississippi Delta region.

They are all part of the flower family, which includes freesia, crocus and gladiolus.

 Because the iris comes in so many colors, it was named for Iris, the personification of the rainbow in Greek mythology. Daughter of Thamus and Electra, Iris was the ancient goddess who served as a messenger from the gods to mankind.

The rainbow was her bridge between heaven and earth. She is always represented in art as a beautiful young woman in a long, flowing tunic and with great golden wings.

Noted 19th century horticulturist and author Gertrude Jekyll wrote of the iris: “the terms bronze and smoke might be used to describe the wonderful coloring of the Spanish iris. But on describing flowers a reference to texture helps and strengthens the color-word. I have often described the iris tuberose as a flower made of green satin and black velvet.”

In medieval times, every monastery had its cloister garden closed off and private. They were areas in which the monks could walk in seclusion in the fresh air.

A section of the cloister garden included growing medicinal plants. Another section was for decorative plants to be used for ornamentation of the altar, and third set of plants would be used for making dyes and pigments. The monks mixed petals of the purple iris with alum to make a beautiful green pigment used in painting illuminations of manuscripts.

One 15th century miniature painting shows “paradise garden,” a seemingly casual scene full of Christian symbolism.

The enclosed garden symbolized the Virgin birth through the allusion to a passage from the Song of Solomon, “a garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse.”

Mary, the Queen of Heaven, is seated upon a cushion reading while her child plays. His royal lineage form the House of David is suggested by the tall and regal iris. Mary’s purity is alluded to by the white lilies and red roses. The flowers, symbolizing Divine love, grow beneath a cherry tree.

Cherry signifies the joy of Heaven. Strawberries, the fruits of righteousness  whose trefoil leaves symbolize the Trinity, grow near the seated figures of St. Michael and St. George. A sturdy vine stock sprouting new growth represents the “rod out of the stem of Jesse.”

On the table are apples, signifying the fall of man and his redemption by Christ.

The water trough is associated with Mary as the “well of living water,” and the lilies-of-the-valley in the foreground denote her meekness and purity.

The goldfinches perched on the wall are associated with Christ’s passion, for they have crimson markings and eat the seed of the thorny thistle.

Many varieties of iris were planted in the Vatican gardens in the 17th century. The gardens at Versailles were lavishly adorned with them each spring.

In this country, iris was important in the gardens of famous estates, such as the Berkley home of the Harrison family, which produced two U.S. presidents; Westover, home of the famous Byrd family; Kenmore, where George Washington’s sister lived; and Washington’s home, Mount Vernon.

Nineteenth century gardening in America hardly varied from that in England and France, where the orchid-like iris was prominently featured.

The garden at The Hermitage, home of President Andrew Jackson and his wife, Rachel, was designed by the Englishman, William Frost.

The garden near Nashville is an acre in size and planted with many spring-flowering bulbs. They include all the old favorites, such as iris, lilies, snowballs and crepe myrtle.

Iris is important in the art and making of perfumes. It is usually referred to as “orris” in this context. It is used in perfumes as one of the flower oils and attars that make up a particular scent, or as a powder made from the roots and bulbs. It is also used in potpourris, sachets, soaps and cleaning compounds.

Many horticulturally important species and hybrids of iris are grown in the United States. They are usually classified as bearded, beardless or crested iris, all of which are rhizomatous and bulbous. The most common — and the most beautiful — is the large yellow, white or purple orchid-like bearded iris we treasure in our gardens.

These are the same flowers as those treasured by the people of ancient Greece and iris fanciers of countless generations since.

Iris is the flower of France, as well as the Italian cities of Florence and Tuscany. It vies with the peony and chrysanthemum as the representative flower of Japan.

Thutmosis I, pharaoh of ancient Egypt, brought iris roots to his homeland in 1950 B.C. They were to be used in making medicines.

For many generations, iris was used as a cure-all for ague, shivering, epilepsy, headaches, loose teeth and snakebite.

In poetry, the iris is often used to symbolize or describe the sky.

The many colors of iris are all colors that appear in the sky at sunrise, sunset, evening and dawn, and in colors of the rainbow.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.