I’m indiscriminate in my love for flowers. There are few that I don’t like, and many that I love. But there is something about my feeling for irises that sets them apart. Which is interesting, because I don’t find them to be the prettiest of flowers, or easy to deal with. As garden plants they are fleeting, leaving you with a mass of sword-shaped leaves to contend with for the rest of the season. They grow from horizontal rhizomes which need to be divided frequently to keep the flowers coming. Their color range is limited, often to whites and shades of purple, though bearded iris cultivars can be many shades of yellows, peaches and maroons.
Unlike roses or peonies, which open slowly into luscious, inviting, petal-filled bowls, irises are architectural and, though beautiful and elegant, a bit stiff. They start as sword-shaped buds and then open so quickly that I watched last spring as the petals of one almost snapped into place. They are with us for a few days, and then start to fade. That swift passage and their rigid stems make them difficult cut flowers. As photography subjects they are frustrating. Their stiffness and multiple planes make them relatively unphotogenic. It’s hard to find good angles and close to impossible to get all of their ten, often moving parts into focus.
And yet I love them. And I am far from alone in this love. For centuries, they have been one of the most popular garden flowers in Europe. Even in Linnaeus’ eighteenth century, gardeners had cultivated so many colors he named them after Iris, the Greek messenger goddess, who journeyed to earth on rainbows. The Japanese cultivated and painted them. Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, and Claude Monet, among many others, painted them. Chinese brush painting has a calligraphy devoted to them. Georgia O’Keefe dove into their most intimate parts. They are found in ancient Egyptian palaces as well as Greek frescoes dating from 2100 BCE.
As with most flowers, I prefer the simpler, native forms, found in their native places, but the complex bearded cultivars bred for gardens are beautiful and fascinating, and make it easy to spy on the iris’ sex life. At the top of the hanging sepals, the falls, is a ‘beard’ of filaments, leading between the upright blades of the petals, or standards. This inviting doorway, often marked by vividly colored nectar guides, gives pollinating bees, plenty of room to land and a clearly marked way in. As they arrive, they brush against the stigma, the tiny, purple horizontal shelf above the beard. Here they deposit the pollen carried from the last flower, thus starting the fertilization process. Then, as they sip nectar, more pollen from the anther tucked under the stigma collects on their bodies. On leaving, they back out, under the stigma, so they don’t lose their new load of pollen.
The native irises are simpler, unbearded, smaller and finer textured than the garden varieties. The standards and falls are less opulent, as well as less colorful, being largely limited to pure white, cream, lavenders and purples. On the eastern end of Long Island, in New York, where I spent many years, the blue flag, Iris versicolor, was a rare and lovely sight. I was thus unprepared for my first spring on the Pacific coast.
The central California natives, like Iris douglasiana and fernaldii, produce nectar for their long-tongued, pollen-laden bees in three tubes formed as the sepals and petals curve into the ovary. They can also be wind pollinated, with plenty of wind available. And they colonize open meadows and woods vegetatively, spreading via their rhizomes.
All this reproductive vigor means that in March and April, the California coastal hills are an iris addict’s dreamscape. Though individual flowers last only five days, more keep coming, so that you can walk among them for weeks, depending on the places you go. The more they spread out their blooming, the more nectar the community produces to attract bees, and thus more seeds get fertilized. The staggered opening of flowers on one stem, and the pooling of nectar in the first flower to open, discourage bees from visiting more than one flower per stem, which means they take their pollen load to neighboring stems. This approach strengthens the colony by cross-pollination, and often creates hybrids by crossbreeding with neighboring species.
Producing such large and intricate flowers creates an advantage in attracting and accommodating pollinators, but takes a lot of energy. To provide large stores of sugar to tuck in their rhizomes, the upright leaves catch the sun from all directions and are among the few that photosynthesize on both sides, rather than just the top. All this evolutionary intelligence means that iris have found homes on every continent, and almost every state and province in North America. Though native stands are threatened, as ever, by bulldozers and the loss of pollinating bees, the flower communities themselves are strong and resilient.
All of these details explain how the flowers grow and prosper, but they don’t explain irises, and therein lies the mystery. These evolutionary choices are themselves mysterious. Why upright petals? Why stiff stems? Why purple and not orange? Why attract bees and not flies? Those are all fascinating to ponder. Yet flowers, like the rest of us, are not their reproductive habits, their petals, their relationships to bees, their beauty, their extraordinary ability to turn pure light into sugar. They are voices of the great forces that have brought — and are still bringing — the whole cosmos into being. Their alluring beauty wasn’t designed for us; they preceded us by 130 million years. We, more likely, were designed for their benefit, with the right eyes and brains to perceive and love them.
Why would we evolve to love them? Is loving beauty part of the design, to keep us attached to life and the earth we arose from? Is it part of the earth’s ability to protect herself? In the last week, President Obama added 6,230 acres of land to the California Coastal National Monument. There is science in these decisions, relating to issues like marine and coastal health. There are considerations of the public good, the environmental benefit, the preservations of natural treasures.
But it’s not abstract theory that inspires us to preserve the beauty of the world. It’s the utter gorgeousness of the planet itself that drives people to say, don’t bulldoze this, don’t make this a parking lot, don’t drill an oil well here. We have certainly not paid enough attention, and have let go of enough treasure to break our hearts anew every day. We need plenty of theories to even partially mitigate our losses. But, in the end, the impulse to preserve the coast wasn’t supplied by ideas, but by standing on the bluffs with the wind off the sea, the waves crashing below, knee deep in irises, deeply in love.
I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.