When the mob overthrew the monarchy during the French Revolution, one of the first acts of the new governing authority was to remove the flower that had been visible for centuries on flags, shields, decorative patches and coats of arms. This flower had been proudly displayed by French royalty, nobility, clergy, and soldiers. It may be seen today in the logo of the New Orleans Saints professional football team.
Known as fleur-de-lis, this flower (fleur) is commonly referred to as a lily (lis). Yet experts in heraldic emblems, botanists, and word sleuths who have delved into the matter generally agree that the flower in question is, in fact, an iris, even though lily and iris are not even distant cousins on the botanical family tree.
There are three explanations for the conclusion reached about the identity of fleur-de-lis. First, early royalty from Frankish tribes, who originally placed this flower on their flags in the sixth century, came from an area, in Flanders, through which the River Lys flows. On the banks of this river, until today, irises (Iris pseudacorus) grow in profusion. Thus, the Franks’ use of fleur-de-lis was meant to represent a flower that they knew well and reminded them of home, the same flower that grew around the River Lys or Lis.
Second, the irises depicted on the French flag and coat of arms from that period are yellow, the same color as the irises that grow around the River Lis. Incidentally, this same psuedacorus iris may be found today in the Japanese Garden at the Donald Tillman Water Reclamation Plant on Woodley Avenue in Van Nuys. It grows abundantly there in the water near the zigzag bridge.
Third, the fleur-de-lis itself has a much closer resemblance to an iris than to a lily. An iris has three standard or vertically upright petals and three floppy petal-like sepals known as falls, whereas the lily has six petals that are identical in their orientation. The fleur-de-lis depicts a flower, albeit stylized, with vertical petals and floppy falls, strongly reminiscent of an iris, especially the sort of bearded iris that grows on the banks of the River Lis.
There was irony in the mob’s removal of the iris from the French flag. The French Revolution was caused in large part because of economic hardship and resentment of the lavish lifestyle of the ruling class. Yet no plant is less lavish in its demands than the iris. Not long ago I passed by a front yard which was abandoned and overcome with weeds and yet irises still bloomed there.
Long before there was a hue and cry for drought tolerant plants, there was the iris. Native to unforgiving rocky, even sandy, terrain — from Italy to Turkey to Israel to Morocco — many species of iris subsist on nothing but winter rain, which may be all but absent from their Mediterranean habitat for years at a time. Tall bearded irises which come from these arid locales have been highly hybridized and hundreds of varieties are available today.
You will probably not see hybrid bearded irises at your neighborhood nursery or in the garden department of home improvement centers. The only way to acquire them is by ordering online. There are many online nurseries to choose from, as well as individual suppliers accessible on eBay.com.
There are many kinds of irises other than the classic tall bearded ones. Pacific Coast irises (Iris douglasiana) are native to the Calfiornia and Oregon coast. They will require some sun protection and perfect drainage to grow well and are available at California native plant nurseries. Iris hollandica are bulb irises which may come back for a few years after planting but will not persist in the manner of tall bearded rhizomatous irises. Crested irises (Iris cristata) are also worth planting when they have hot sun protection and good soil drainage.
Americanmeadows.com is a comprehensive plant and seed supply company with a large selection of bulbs as well. You type in your zip code and are given a list of bulbs and when to plant them. There are four planting seasons for bulbs. From now until December, bulbs from dry climates such as the Mediterranean and South Africa are planted. This includes bearded iris in the full rainbow of colors, harlequin sparaxis, pink watsonia, orange-red crocosmia, blue ixia, and purple Scilla peruviana. From mid-October to late January, plant daffodils and narcissus, Anemone, Spanish bluebells, sometimes called dwarf hyacinth, and muscari, also known as grape hyacinth. Hybrid Dutch bulbs (tulips, crocuses, and giant hyacinths) are best planted November through January after they have been chilled in a refrigerator’s crisper drawer for six to fourteen weeks. Bulbs for spring planting include dahlia, gladiolus, caladium, calla lilies, and canna lilies. There is certainly overlap in some of these planting seasons and, generally speaking, when any type of bulb is available at the nursery, it’s ready for planting with the exception of the three hybrid Dutch bulb types mentioned above.
If you want to plant bulbs that come back year after year and spread expanisively or naturalize without much effort, focus your attention on watsonia, crocosmia, ixia, muscari, daffodil, narcissus, tall bearded iris, white calla lily, and canna lilies. Keep in mind that nearly all flowers that grow from bulbs or rhizomes may be cut for vase arrangements.
Americanmeadows.com promotes the planting of wildflower seeds amidst your bulbs. This is a sensible idea since most bulbs, as well as wildflowers, at least in our area, are planted at the same time of the year, in early fall. You can find wildflower seeds suitable for our area on this website. An even wider selection of wildflower seeds may be found at the Theodore Payne Foundation in Sun Valley.
Tip of the Week: Hybrid bearded irises (Iris germanica), the type of iris most commonly seen, are best planted from now until December, the sooner the better. If you want to see blooms as early as this coming winter or spring, planting in late August or early September is recommended. This gives the rhizomes — bulb-like organs that are planted horizontally, half buried in the soil and half exposed — time to develop roots, establish themselves, and send up leaves and then flowers within the next five to seven months. By the same token, if you are dividing existing clumps of irises and wish to spread them around your garden or give some of them away, now is the time to do it.