Common Name:  Dwarf Iris, Vernal Iris

Scientific Name: Iris verna (The genus name is from the colors of the flower appearing to be as a rainbow, or iris; the species name is from the Latin vernalus, belonging to spring from which the adjective vernal for spring is also derived)


The peculiar shape of the iris is considered by many to be the model for the fleur-de-lis, the quintessential symbol of the French monarchy. This has been subject to some controversy, however, since fleur-de-lis is literally translated from the French as lily flower. The problem arises because the fleur-de-lis is yellow and looks like an iris, whereas the lily is white and has a more standard blossom shape. An appealing etymology for lis is the German lieschblume, a yellow iris (I. pseudacorus) that grows in marshes along the border with France. It is surmised that it came to be called fleur-de-liesch in the north of France, liesch becoming lis in the gradual cultural adaptation.  The yellow iris was also called flamme in Old French, and it believed that it is the root for oriflamme, the ancient royal flag of France.


The iris is notable for the specialization of the basic flower components that distinguish it from the standard blossom.  A calyx is the normally green structure at the base of a standard flower. The iris has a calyx made up of three sepals that are the same color as the petals. They are called falls, as they extend downward. The three petals that make up the corolla project upward and are called standards (or flags; blue flag and yellow flag are common names for two species of iris). The most remarkable specialized trait of the iris is the adaptation of the style, that part of the female sex organ that connects the stigma to the ovary. It, too, has the same hue and appearance as the petals and the falls. 


The iris's specialized adaptations attract pollinators to encourage fertilization.  The falls act as a landing area for insects and are marked with the bright lines (yellow-orange for the I. verna) to provide the direction to the mouth of the blossom. They are covered with fuzz to provide a good grip for the descending insects. As the pollinator enters the iris to collect the nectar, it must pass close by the style which has a stigmatic lip that scrapes the pollen off to provide for germination. When the pollinator exits, it passes by the stamen to pick up pollen for the next iris.


Legend attributes the use of the yellow iris by the French monarchs to Clovis, the King of the Franks from 481 to 511 and the founder of Frankish state.  During a campaign against Alaric, the King of Aquitaine, Clovis was seeking a ford across a river for his army. A deer was frightened by the soldiers, and crossed the river at a ford that was thus revealed to Clovis. On the far side, he found a yellow iris that he put on his helmet as a testament to his good fortune which continued through to his defeat of Alaric near Poitiers in 507.  This story is almost certainly apocryphal, as the fleur-de-lis was first used as a heraldic symbol by King Phillipe II in 1180 and adopted as the French royal standard with three golden fleurs-de-lis on an azure background by King Charles the Wise in 1376.  But, like George Washington and the cheery tree, it is a good story.


In Greek mythology, Iris was the anthropomorphized goddess of the rainbow. She served as a messenger for the gods in general, but primarily for Hera, the wife and sister of Zeus. She was thus the female counterpart of Hermes (Mercury in Roman mythology).  In that a rainbow extends from the heavens to the earth, it was believed in Ancient Greece that this phenomenon afforded a means of communication between gods and mortals.  Accordingly, whenever a rainbow appeared, Iris was bringing a message from Olympus to a mortal or to a god on a terrestrial mission.  She had several collateral duties.  She led the souls of dead women to the Elysian Fields which gave rise to the custom of planting irises on the graves of women.  She also brought water from the River Styx which was used as a means of certifying the veracity of the gods. If they drank it after taking a solemn oath, they were rendered unconscious for one year if they had lied. Iris was married to Zephyrus, the god of the west wind and, according to some accounts, the mother of Eros, the god of love. There is a metaphorical appeal to the notion of love being a child born of the rainbow and the wind.


The iris genus consists of some 170 species distributed throughout the northern temperate areas of North America and Eurasia. I. versicolor, commonly known as blue flag, is the predominant indigenous iris in the Northeast, overlapping somewhat with the dwarf iris in Virginia and Maryland. It is notable for its medicinal uses as well as for its toxic effects. Native Americans used the root in a poultice to treat sores and to make a tea that was a laxative and an emetic. It was adopted by early medical practitioners who used small, frequent doses to stimulate the bowels and the kidneys, and to otherwise "cleanse the blood."  As with many medicinal treatments derived from plants, the chemical that provides the palliative effect in small doses is toxic if consumed in quantity. The blue flag contains furfural which can cause nausea and iridin, a powerful hepatic stimulant. Livestock have been poisoned when grazing in wild iris.

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