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Iris: the Militant

Fleur de Lis

By Audrey Stallsmith

iris Florentina

. . .his crest that prouder than blue iris bends.

William Shakespeare, Trollius & Cressida

The iris has long been a symbol of military pride and might, perhaps because its leaves resemble swords. A stylized version of the bloom adorned the sphinx's brow, the sceptres of pharaohs, and the crests of French kings.

The yellow flag, iris pseudacorus or "false sweet flag", is believed to have been the famous Fleur de Lys. That phrase is supposed to be either a corruption of Fleur de ("flower of") Louis, or a reference to the river Lys where it grows in profusion.

(Some think another flower was indicated and that the phrase should be translated as "flower of the lily". But I agree with those who insist that the fleur-de-lis symbol looks much more like an iris.)

Clovis, a sixth century king of the Franks, replaced the three toads on his banner with irises at about the same time he converted to Christianity. According to legend, the yellow flag saved his life because its presence revealed which parts of the Rhine River were shallow enough for his troops to cross. That flag was also known as Segg ("sword") or Gladyne.

The fleur-de-lis insignia became such a well-known symbol of French royalty that, after the revolution of 1789, the simple wearing of it could send a man to the guillotine!

Despite all this masculine swagger, the iris was named for the Greek rainbow goddess. But she was the messenger the gods sent when they were unhappy, so she might also be associated with war. Her bloom, naturally enough, stands for "message" in the Language of Flowers. Since Iris was also supposed to lead dead females to the Greek version of paradise, her flower often decorated the graves of women.

According to Gerard, "the common Floure-de-luce hath long and flaggy leaves like the blade of a sword with two edges, amongst which spring up smooth and plaine stalks. . .bearing floures toward the top compact of six leaves joyned together, whereof three that stand upright are bent inward toward one another; and in those leaves that hang downeward there are certain rough or hairy welts."

These days, the "upright" petals are called standards and the "downeward" ones are known as falls. The "rough and hairy welts" are, of course, the beards. Those threes were supposed to stand for faith, wisdom, and valor.

Gerard also refers to the Floure-de-luce of Florence, "whose roots in shops and generally every where are called Ireos, or Orice (whereof sweet waters, sweet pouders, and such like are made). . ."

Orris root has also been harvested from iris Germanica and iris pallida ("pale" iris), but iris Florentina is considered superior for the purpose. Although orris was once used extensively in perfumery for its violet-like scent, it is most often employed as a preservative for potpourri now.

Mixed with anise or dipped directly into boiling laundry water, orris scented clothes and linens and perfumed the powder sprinkled on wigs. Combined with honey and ginger, it flavored a favorite drink in Russia. On its own, it often spiced and preserved beer, wine, and artificial brandies. The ripe seeds have also been brewed into a coffee-like beverage and the orris roots carved into beads or charms.

Gerard wrote that "the root of the common Floure-de-luce cleane washed, and stamped with a few drops of Rose-water, and laid plaisterwise upon the face of man or woman, doth in two daies at the most take away the blacknesse or blewness of any stroke or bruse."

John Heinerman seconds this treatment, suggesting, for those who don't have rosewater on hand, that they puree the iris root with a handful of rose petals and a couple tablespoons of water.

Although iris, in the past, also treated dropsy, bronchitis, and chronic diarrhea, ingesting it can cause vomiting. The Blue Flag (iris versicolor) was often mistaken for sweet flag (acorus calamus) by unfortunate children who found the imposter to be quite nauseating.

The iris is such a lovely flower, though, that we should forget the "bad taste" left by her association with war and unpleasant news. Her vivid colors can, instead, remind us of her connection to the rainbow--that promise of better things to come.

Iris florentina image is from Les Liliacees by P. J. Redoute, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden