Tag Archives: heirloom plants

The Iris: A Centuries Old Flower with an Intriguing History

One of the most beautiful groups of flowers we have on Alcatraz is the iris. They have been a common staple in gardens for centuries. It is worth taking a moment to look at the long history of these flowers and when they became common garden staples in America.

Iris found in Foundation 9 of Officer’s Row. Smells like Grandma’s Perfume according to some visitors. Photo by Tyrha Delger

 

Irises first grew to prominence as a garden flower in 1469 BCE. The Egyptian pharaoh King Thutmose III conquered Syria, where irises grew. An avid gardener, he brought them back to Egypt to be cultivated. This was the first-time irises had been documented as a gardening flower. From there, irises rose to prominence for their religious significance. They were carved into sculptures at temples and doctors used the rhizomes for medicine and perfume offerings.

As irises began to spread in the popularity, due to their showy flowers and lovely scents, the Greeks were the first to name them “iris”. Iris means rainbow and is the Greek messenger of the gods. Indeed, irises come in an array of colors, from deep purples to brilliant oranges. They continued to spread around Europe, becoming a staple in gardens from Spain to parts of Asia. Indians began to use their rhizomes for religious offerings. In Florence, Italy, the scent became a popular perfume. The iris inspired the design for the Fleur-de-lis. It is a common motif in France, past French Colonies, and with the Catholic Church, usually relating the Virgin Mary.

 

Iris found in the Rose Garden. Brilliantly orange, it can easily draw the eye. Photo by Tyrha Delger

The first documented iris in America was in 1600s Virginia. From there, irises would continue to hybridize, speciate, and transform into unique American varieties. It wasn’t until Michael Foster (1836-1907) studied and planted these beautiful flowers, that irises were made popular. One of his students, William R. Dykes (1877-1925) took an interest in irises and published a book called “The Genus Iris”. It was this study of irises that brought the flower to the popular conscious. In the early 1900s, there was a rise of irises in American gardens. It became so popular, Tennessee adopted it as the state flower. The most popular iris today is the German or Bearded Iris, an iris we have on Alcatraz. However, most irises have hybridized so much that there are 300 species, and these species are difficult to separate into a clean taxonomy.

 

The hybridization provides another unique focal point for Alcatraz’s irises. If you smell a modern iris, it doesn’t smell like much. On Alcatraz, the irises have a stronger scent. Different Alcatraz irises smell like root beer, vanilla, and grandma’s perfume (according to

A row of root beer scented Bearded Irises in Officer’s Row. Photo by Tyrha Delger

some visitors). We have pastel purple, deep purple, white, orange and yellow Irises scattered about the Rose Garden and Officers’ Row. We use heirloom plants, which means our irises still have the genetic markers to make scent. Our use of heirloom plants provides an extra touch of historical intrigue to visitors who know their flowers.

 

As a flower, irises inspire the creative and bring delight to the floral enthusiast. They provide intriguing patterns and interesting shapes. They are unique and vibrant against the backdrop of stone and concrete. They are a flower with a long history, and it’s not hard to see why they’ve been a garden staple for thousands of years.

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