The Iris is believed to be among the oldest of cultivated garden plants. The flower was named in honour of the Greek goddess of the rainbow. In classic Greek mythology Iris was the messenger of the goddess Juno (Hera).
She carried messages from the gods to earth along a multi-coloured pathway that shone in the sky after rain. In ancient times it was believed that whenever the rainbow appeared, Iris was descending to earth and that she would gather the souls of women to take back to Heaven.
The association between the feminine life force and the Iris remains to this day. The Iris is still the traditional flower to plant over a woman's grave to insure the peace and future rest of her soul. The Egyptians considered the Iris to be a symbol of power.
Masses were used to adorn the brow of the Sphinx and they appear frequently in the wall paintings of several temples. By the Middle Ages herbaceous (German) Iris were commonly known as Flags or Flag Iris.
That is because within the colourful world of the Iris there are blooms in every possible shade and combination of colours.
Medieval monks used the rhizome to treat ulcers and induce sleep. Legend has it that a local European variety once inspired the royal emblem of the French monarchy, the Fleur de Lys. The name is derived from the first twelve kings of France who all bore the name Louis.
The French army of King Clovis (465-511 A.D.) was trapped in battle beside a river. On seeing irises growing in the water they realized that the river was shallow enough to escape across and gain the victory. Later, on the battlefield the soldiers made crowns of the iris flowers.
The stylised symbol of those blooms still adorns the sceptres of French kings and nobility. There are at least 200 species of iris all native to the northern temperate regions. Hybrids from these wild species range in the thousands.
Iris are divided into herbaceous varieties that grow from a thick, fleshy, creeping rootstock (rhizome) and bulbous varieties.
The rhizomous varieties can be divided and replanted in the late autumn and winter months. Now is an excellent time to plant the bulbous sorts as well. The bulb varieties are botanically known as the Xiphium group of hybrids.
All are hybrids of I. Xiphium, an early flowered form similar to "Wedgwood". These include the Dutch, Spanish and English Irises.
They are hardy, reliable bulbs, which are largely pest and disease free. If grown in a sunny, well-draining soil these soon multiply to make impressive clumps. They need little care but respond to soils enriched with well-rotted manures and compost, blood and bone, or bulb food.
Avoid high nitrogen fertilisers, which will encourage fungal attacks. Heavy, wet soils should be lightened with sand, gravel or fluffy compost and drench the soil with a fungicide.
The Dutch Wedgwood can start blooming in winter followed by the other Dutch hybrids. The slightly taller and thinner Spanish then follow. The beautiful English Iris bloom last in early summer. Whatever varieties you choose, now is the time to start planting your own rainbows!
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