#53 Iris


The family Iridacae contains over three-hundred species including uncountable varieties of hybrids. Spectacularly colored and dramatically shaped flowers composed of six petals, three standing and three curving downward surrounded by sword-shaped leaves, arise out of bulbs or rhizomes. Besides the many varieties of bearded irises planted in sunny beds and borders, there are miniature species used for rockeries, bog irises which grow at the edges of ponds or in permanently damp soil, and woodland irises (Hogan 739).  While a few bloom in late winter around February, other varieties appear beginning in late March and continuing into June.

Irises are among the oldest of flowers known to humans. Frescos in the Palace of Knossos on Crete (destroyed ca. 1700 BC), contain images of what look like two varieties: there is a patch of small irises in the bottom right of the “Bluebird” fresco and several large, nearly waist high flowers in the fresco of “The Iris Prince" https://www.pinterest.com/pin/436778863831756875/
Irises have been cultivated since the Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmosis I, 1500 BC.  (Hogan 739).  

Iris root, also known as orris has a long medicinal and cosmetic history, dating back to classical Greece where Hippocrates prescribed it as a “remedy for sexual complaints” (Heilmeyer 34), specifically as a cure for scrofula (Berry 18). It is also commonly used to treat teething in infants (Heilmeyet 34, Watts 282). Some species of iris (Italian natives, palladia and florentina) have roots which smell like violets ; these were dug up, trimmed, strung like beads to dry, and used for sachets (Berry 18).  Watts refers to the Wardrobe accounts of Edward IV to maintain that that mixed with anise, orrisroot “was used as a perfume for linen as early as 1480 (282).

The name Iris comes from the Greek goddess of the rainbow, reputedly so named because of the variety of its colors. Iris was a kind of female version of Mercury, who, also wing-footed, carried messages across the rainbow; while Mercury guided men down to the Elysian fields, Iris was tasked with guiding women.  Several sources point out that the Greeks still place irises on the graves of dead women (Ward 216, Heilmeyer 34). Irises were also one of the flowers growing in the field where Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, according to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.

Different kinds of iris are native to Europe, North America, and Asia. I. psuedcorous, tall, bright yellow bog irises referred to as FLAGS, are native to Britain (I have dealt with them in a separate entry).  Irises also have strong historical associations with the French monarchy. Louis the VII (1137-1180) adopted the iris as his personal emblem and a stylized version of it became the fleur-de-lys (Ward 216). As Rendall points out, there is some doubt over whether the name comes from the “Flower of Louis” or the flower of the lily, and there is some early confusion between the two species. For example, in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer says the friar has a neck as white as the fleur-de-lys, which seems to indicate a lily (336). In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s Perdita says that the “flower-de-Luce” is a kind of lily (IV, iii, l. 126; qtd by Rendall 336). The three other references in Shakespeare’s history plays, however,  all refer to French heraldry (Rendall 367).

In England, the popularity of irises in garden landscaping dates to the intensive development of hybrid varieties in the late nineteenth century.  Martin Foster, a Cambridge don, brought Japanese irises back from a trip to east Asia and began crossing them with I. palladia, native to Italy, producing the strong, colorful, many-branched varieties still popular today. He inspired W.R. Dykes, who grew numerous species in his garden at Godalming in Surrey, writing the standard work on irises in 1913, The Genus Iris, a 1924 edition of which is in the Woolf’s library at WSU (Berry 20).  Both Gertrude Jeykll and Vita Sackville West were notable iris enthusiasts (Berry 22).[1] Vita included two small, winter-blooming irises among the twenty-five she selected for her book, Some Flowers: I. unguicularis or stylosa and I. reticulatata.

Despite this rich heritage, Woolf’s use of irises is surprisingly minimal and, with some notable exceptions, relates to species irises she saw growing freely in various European locations.(I suspect the associations with the tradition of the French monarchy rendered them symbolically unappealing.)  An interesting feature is how commonly irises are paired with other flowers as part of a display.  For example, her first mention of irises is in company with asphodels in her 1923 essay “To Spain,” where they are part of an enumerated list of landscape features: “stones, olive trees, goats, asphodels, irises, bushes, ridges, shelves, clumps, tufts, and hollows innumerable” (E3 363). In a somewhat ritualized ritual of repetition, they appear a second time, accompanied by dragonflies in another list of objects which, continuously chanted in the mind, turns into into “phrases of command” that extort the mule rider to keep going: “stones, olives, goats, asphodels, dragon-flies, irises” (E3 363-4).  Although both flowers have classical associations with Hades, these funeral resonances are subordinated to their simple presence as the plants.

Woolf’s next irises are accompanied by roses in the florist shop scene in Mrs. Dalloway in another repetitive chorus, this time a featuring a series of color contrasts. First Clarissa simply notices, “There were roses; there were irises” (12). Then the list expands as she watches the florist, Miss Pym, turn her head "from side to side among the irises and roses and nodding tufts of lilac” (MD 13).  As the catalogue of flowers swells, she imagines a garden at twilight: ”the moment between six and seven when every flower--roses, carnations, irises, lilac--glows: white, violet, red, deep orange” (MD 13). 

Although these are clearly large hybrid irises, the color contrasts -- red and purple, purple and blue -- continue with the appearance of irises in Orlando, where the reference is to wild purple irises found in the mountains of Turkey, probably the smaller I. reticulata  praised by Vita and native to the Caucus mountains. 
 While living with the gipsies, s/he succumbs to their English love of Nature, stirred in part by the beauty of the flowers, “the red hyacinth, the purple iris” which they compare to enamel on a Turkish rug (106). The fact that Orlando makes these comparisons and looks down onto the flowers suggests the smaller variety, as does her later memory of the mountains of Turkey in the folds of whose passes there were “fields of rises and gentians” (182).  Upon returning to her country home, Orlando plants another pair of early spring bloomers, for her gardens blow with “irises and fritillaries” (238).  Once again, we see irises paired with other vivid, darkly colored flowers. 
        The association of irises with Vita continues in 1931 when Woolf makes her only reference to orris or iris root. In a letter to Vita, she evokes one of the animal identities she also took on with Leonard, that of Potto, a kind of “west African lemur or Sloth” which referred to “Woolf’s slothful or invalid state” (Sproles 155): “Potto expiring. But you’re right—he’s not dead. I brought him here—put him on the terrace—he stirred yesterday—today he’s nibbled on orris root which I happened to have by me” (L4 365).
Besides these eight mentions of flowers and one allusion to the root, the other ten references to irises in Woolf’s writings mostly have to do with either friend’s gardens or travel experiences. In December of 1926 she mentions an iris given to her as a gift when she visited Ka and Will Cox for Christmas in Cornwall (L3 312); the fact that it is flowering (L3 313) once again suggests I. reticulata as it is one of the earliest bloomers and also small enough to be easily transported on a train.   Woolf encounters more irises on two Mediterranean journeys--to Greece in April of 1932 and to Greece and Italy in May of 1935.  In April of 1932, she records seeing “flapping black white speckled rises” in the gardens of Athens (D4 91).  I am at a loss to identify this variety. There is a species of small iris native to Greece, I. attica. Growing only four inches tall with a flower diameter of one to two inches, it comes in a wide variety of shades from white through yellow to several shades of purple, none of which have spots.[2]

It is probably I. attica that Woolf noticed the next day at Suniun [Sounion], where she notes that  “the flowers all in miniature made a bright turf” from which Margery Fry “uprooted little irises” (D4 92). Later in May, while visiting the island of Aegina, the party was presented with flowers by local children, who gathered round “pressing irises & yellow poppies”  (D4 96).  A year later, passing through Florence, she mentions a somewhat taller variety, noticing “Irises purple against the clouds” of a thunderstorm over the Arno.  These were likely I. palladia, aka the Dalmatian Iris, which is native to nearby Croatia but, according to Wikapedia, is  widely naturalised elsewhere” and blooms in May.[3]

Perhaps these trips inspired some interest in irises.  As previously noted, Leonard had a copy of W.R. Dykes’ definite study of irises in his library at Monk’s House.  In 1935 he recorded buying unspecified irises for the garden in his Account Book. By 1938 he had become more specialized, ordering I. kampferi, a Japanese pond iris, probably planted in the dew pond or the fish pond. But the most extensive evidence of irises in the garden at Monk’s House comes at the end of Leonard Woolf ‘s autobiography of the years 1919-1939, Downhill All the Way, with a particularly poignant scene involving planting Vita’s beloved  I. reticulata under the apples trees in the orchard:
We were in Rodmell during the late summer of 1939, and I used to listen to those ranting, raving speeches. One afternoon I was planting in the orchard under an apple-tree iris reticulata, those lovely violet flowers. . . . Suddenly I heard Virginia’s voice calling to me from the sitting room window: “Hitler is making a speech.” I shouted back, “I shan’t come. I’m planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead.” Last March, twenty-one years after Hitler committed suicide in the bunker, a few of those violet flowers still flowered under the apple-tree in the orchard.  (254)

Virginia Woolf’s last references to irises are similarly commemorative.  In the biography of her friend, Roger Fry, she remembers that Roger’s “favourite irises nodded over the fountain presided over by the Chinese statue” in his garden (239). She also recreates the trip to Sounion where she had recorded Fry’s sister Margery digging up native irises in her diary. Now it is Roger who uproots the flowers: “squatted on the turf, he dug up minute blue irises with his pocket-knife” (RF 280).  When asked if he thought Greek irises would grow in his garden in Suffolk, he replies in much the same hopeful spirit as Leonard later showed: "Well, one can only try and see."

A silkscreen by the author

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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...