The Spiritual Gardener: Under the Spell of the Fleur de Lys

I drove off to work this morning, noticing the patch of irises we have on the corner: dark purple ones with a few small Russian sages growing in amongst them, surrounded by a fringe of white yarrow, all of them specially selected to be xeric, so they can tolerate the dry street corner that can only be reached by my longest hose when I stretch it all the way out, which is essentially never, or at most, only once or twice a summer.

In my mind, these all bloom together in an astonishing purple-white profusion that amazes passersby and delights all who traffic this busy intersection. In reality, however, all three things bloom at slightly different times most years, each looking strangely bereft and ill-at-ease with its companions, like the last stragglers left at the high school reunion. It is funny how designs in the garden don’t usually come out exactly the way one plans or hopes. Of course, I suppose you could say the same about children and dogs. Life, perhaps.

irises, darks and light blue
These are the dark blue irises that re-bloom in late November or early December each year, providing an impressive final delight in the garden

And yet, I still have hopes this year for those irises, because they happen to be a rare type that re-blooms modestly each fall, occasionally (as now) on into December. I remember the first time I saw this and was quite amazed, not having been informed that such a wonderful thing as re-blooming irises had been cultivated. The garden was completely finished, with nothing blooming but an occasional rogue rose blossom, and cold days had come and gone, and out comes this gorgeous, dark, orchidaceous fleur-de-lys, which by the way, is what they are called in parts of Europe, as you probably know. And the scent, always intoxicating, was all the richer for being so unexpected and so out of time in the garden.

 

smallpurple irises, palisade
The lovely scent from so many irises as this, coupled with the strong perfume of the flowering Russian olives, is almost over-powering. But in a good way, that you just have to stand still and luxuriate in.

I had to pick several and have them in the house, after going through my usual dithering of not wanting to spare flowers from the garden to have them in the house, while, of course, wanting them in the house at the same time. And they simply perfumed the kitchen, where I could look on them constantly. Our housekeeper, who helps us clean this big house, which is far too large for us to manage alone, was as amazed by these flowers as I was, and was completely captivated by them. This summer, she moved back to her native Portugal to retire and asked to have some iris rhizomes from these beautiful plants. The “Thanksgiving lyrias,” she called them. So I made up a nice bag of several dozen rhizomes, all trimmed and packed neatly in peat moss for their trip to Portugal, where I trust they will flourish and bloom with abandon at least twice a year, if not more often.

iris in bronze, Philadelphia
The beauty of an iris is too delicate and fleeting to capture in an art like sculpture, and yet here is an attempt that I admire and actually covet.

Not only are these beautiful flowers grown all over Europe, but they also grow wild in many parts of that lucky continent, and I have seen them covering entire hillsides above the Adriatic with their wild purple gorgeousness. Their name means “rainbow” in Greek, a reference to their broad color range, and they appear on many of the royal coats of arms of Europe. One of their most ancient associations is with France, and the fleur de lys has been on the French coat of arms since its first king, Clovis, the founder of the Merovingian dynasty and of what we now think of as the French nation, is said to have picked one and put it in his hat before the battle of Vouillé in 507. How very jaunty; you might do worse than putting an iris in your hat before you go off to do battle on a difficult day at the office. His conversion to Christianity is one reason the iris, and the lily it is traditionally related to, have some of the oldest symbolic associations with Christian tradition.

irises, blue
The color range of the iris is broad, but the brilliant blues are rightly among the most popular.

I have raised irises for more than fifty years, and I never tire of them. Some people find them difficult and especially prone to borers and slugs, almost to the point of not being worth growing, but I find them incredibly easy to grow, almost I would say hardy and fool-proof. They are gorgeous, come in all sizes and colors, are fairly xeric and low maintenance, and they make wonderful cut flowers. They have their flaws, of course, as who among us does not. They are so very beautiful that their ugly shriveled flowers are disfiguring to the overall effect as a bloom fades. The defect that offsets the great virtue of their beauty is that this beauty is famously fleeting, with a bloom only looking perfect for a day or so, perhaps two. If you cannot stand the philosophical allusion of this ephemeral effect—memento mori, et in arcadia ego, and so on—then you must daily pinch or scissor off the faded bloom; otherwise, try not to complain when life throws gorgeousness at your feet, but the gorgeousness is not quite perfect.

smallirises, Castle Pines
On the other hand, the pinks are pretty fabulous too, so it is hard to be certain.

This bloom-snipping is a small thing on an indoor bouquet, easily accomplished in the morning while you are waiting for your first cup of coffee, but you would have to be rather obsessive to run the entire stock of irises in a large garden that way, if you are lucky enough to have heaps of these beautiful creatures, as I have made sure to be. I know exactly how obsessive you would have to be to trim all the spent iris blooms in a large garden, because of course I have done it, as I am ashamed to say, rising early every day to trim off the spent blooms by their hundreds so that every plant looks perfect every day, though I would not like to be seen as so fanatical in my care for, say marigolds, or even roses. Though fanaticism where roses are concerned is rather tempting, I must admit, and who has not felt that.

azalea, irises
They pair well with almost everything, and even just a few call attention to venerable companions like this dazzling white azalea.

They are easy to divide, the irises, and fairly happy to be moved, practically any time of the year, even in the depths of winter if you are suddenly transferred in your working life and have to pull up a lucky-dip sampling of your iris garden to take it to a new location, as I have had to do more than once. But early September is best, or even late August, if you are looking for garden chores around then, so the plant has time to establish itself properly before winter. Novice gardeners have a hard time discarding the very large, spent rhizomes and keeping only the much smaller offsets when dividing irises, on the intuitive theory that larger is better and healthier in the garden, as indeed it usually is. But they are spent and you must throw them away. Be strong. Close your eyes and think of England, if that is a help to you. They should be divided every three or four years, ideally; I do them in presidential election years, as a simple way of remembering when it is time to divide them, and on the theory that our elected officials ought to be good for something. The problem, of course, is that each plant yields a handful of new plants and soon it becomes impossible to keep finding room for all the offsets. Unless you are Napoleon Bonaparte, that is, and have an expansionist policy and a wife with an insatiable taste for flowers.

irises and lupines
Their pastels let them accompany almost any flower in the garden, as here with violet lupines.

For a while, as most gardeners do, I gradually colonized bits of lawn area for iris expansion, usually when a certain other member of the household was out of town or otherwise not paying strict attention to her slightly mad husband. But obviously this strategy cannot go on forever without producing a great deal of domestic unhappiness, which is largely counter-productive in my experience, so that eventually even the stingiest gardener has to part with some. This is a dark day in the garden and it is very hard for gardeners to do, as our greed for plant stock—whether our own or others’—is pretty much unlimited. Every four years, I put a huge heap of them on our busy street corner with a big sign saying “FREE IRISES!” and they are snapped up very quickly by passersby, but it always gives me a pang to do so.

irises, pink, in vase
They are less perfect as cut flowers, I have to admit, because of their short-lived blooms, but they are still pretty good.

Another flaw—of the flower, not the gardener, though he has plenty—is that they like full sun, which is a precious commodity in most gardens, but not many gardeners really begrudge at least a few irises a prime location. Many, perhaps most, people think the foliage is ugly after the plant flowers, and if you feel that way, this is a grave defect indeed, and you will have to develop complicated planting schemes to screen the bare foliage in midsummer, or grow them closer to the middle of your planting areas and not near the edges. On the other hand, if you feel, like me, that the sword-shaped leaves are rather shapely and interesting and catch patterns of sunlight and shade in attractive ways—just think for a moment of Van Gogh’s many famous paintings of irises—then happily, this is not high on your list of things to worry about in the garden, and life on the whole bowls along in a much smoother groove.

David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at www.TheGardenInterior.com. You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.