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By Ellen Probert Williamson
One of the most popular of the spring flowers in the gardens of medieval Europe was the flowerdelouce.
It is still one that we greet with joy in our spring gardens — only we call it iris or flags, or, if we are French, fleur de lys.
Iris blooms come in so many different colors and combinations of color that they were named after Iris, the personification of the rainbow in Greek mythology.
There are about 200 species of iris to be found in the northern temperate zone. Native to Asia, about 30 different species grow wild in the eastern United States and in the region of the Mississippi delta.
They are a part of the same family which includes freesia, crocus and gladiolus.
Iris, the daughter of Thaumas and Electra, was the ancient goddess of the rainbow, and 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 iris by saying that “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 tuberoses as a flower made of green satin and black velvet.”
In medieval times every monastery had its cloister garden closed off and private, where the monks could walk in seclusion in the fresh air.
In the sunshine of the cloister garden there would have been a section for growing medicinal plants. Another section would have been for decorative plants to be used in adorning the altar, and a third section of plants would be for making dyes and pigments.
The monks used the petals of the purple iris mixed with alum to make a beautiful green pigment which they used in the illumination of manuscripts.
One miniature painting done by an unknown artist in the 15th century shows “paradise garden,” a seemingly casual scene but 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 from 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 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, and a sturdy vine stock, sprouting new growth, represents the “rod out of the stem of Jesse.”
On the table are apples, signifying symbolically 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 adorned lavishly with them in the spring.
In this country, iris was important in all the gardens of famous estates such as the Berkley home of the Harrison family, which produced two presidents; Westover, home of the famous Byrd family; Kenmore, where George Washington’s sister lived; and Mount Vernon, home of George Washington.
During the 19th century the story of gardening in America varied hardly at all from that in England and France, and the orchid-like iris was featured prominently.
The garden at the Hermitage near Nashville, the home of President Andrew Jackson and his wife, Rachel, was designed by the Englishman, William Frost.
It is an acre in size and planted with many spring bulbs.
It includes all the old favorites such as iris, lilies, snowballs and crepe myrtles.
Several years ago, a spring tornado uprooted a number of the century-old trees, but the iris bloomed that year as bravely as ever, as it has done ever since.
Iris is a very important part of the art of the perfumer.
Usually referred to as orris in this context, it is used in the manufacture of perfume as one of the many flower oils and attars that make up a particular scent or as a powder made from the roots, or bulbs, in potpourris and sachets, as well as in soaps and cleaning compounds.
Many horticulturally important species, hybrids and cultivators 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 irises.
The most common is also one of the most beautiful. It is the large purple, yellow or white orchid-like bearded iris which so many of us treasure in our gardens. These are the same flowers as those treasured by the people of ancient Greece and all the iris fanciers of countless generations since that time.
Iris is not only the flower of France, but is claimed also as the flower of Florence and Tuscany in Italy. It vies with the peony and the chrysanthemum as the representative flower of Japan.
Thutmosis I, Pharaoh of ancient Egypt in 1950 B.C., brought iris roots to Egypt to be used in medicine.
For many generations it 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 ap-
pear in the sky at sunrise, sunset, evening or dawn, or in the colors of the rainbow.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.