Sunday, March 20, 2011

Bearded Iris

What’s happening: People planting new trees; continued to trim trees, clean ditches and burn along fences; arborvitae recovering; rose branches turning green; new leaves on tulips, bearded iris, hyacinths, garlic chives, Autumn Joy sedum, vinca, bouncing Bess, white sweet clover, alfalfa, Mexican hat, broom senecio and pampas grass; new anthemis seedlings; dead pigweeds breaking loose; pet garlic back; green showing in leaf buds of lilacs.

What’s green: Evergreen, yucca, grape hyacinth, oriental poppy, hollyhock, Jupiter’s beard, small leaved soapwort, gypsum phacelia, yellow and pink evening primrose, winecup, tansy and tumble mustard. broom senecio, snakeweed, dandelion, black-eyed Susan, and chrysanthemum leaves; June, cheat and needle grass.

What’s grey, blue-grey or grey-green: Piñon, four-winged salt bush, stickleaf, yellow alyssum and winterfat leaves; new leaves on loco; stickleaf seedlings emerging.

What’s red/turning red: Cholla, Madonna lily, golden spur columbine, beardstongue, creeping mahonia leaves; young tamarix stems; apple tree branches look redder.

What’s yellow/turning yellow: Leaf buds laying along branches of globe willows, pulling away into independent leaves on weeping willow; forsythia buds showing bright green.

What’s blooming inside: Bud on pomegranate; new growth on zonal geraniums.

Animal sightings: Rabbit; quail in uphill neighbor's yard; smaller birds are back, including a pair that’s eyeing my back porch.

Weather: Warm afternoons with winds and no moisture; snow lingers in Jemez and Sangre de Cristo; last rain 3/8/11; 12:09 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: New bearded iris leaves are emerging through the remains of last year’s dead debris. In a few cases, old leaves are being pushed up by new growth.

In milder climates the plants retain their color all year. William Dykes took that as an indicator that Iris germanica was native to a warmer climate than England, one nearer the Mediterranean. He also noted the flowers sometimes failed in his area when cold in March or April killed the rudimentary flowering stems, still buried in the leaves.

The Española valley isn’t particularly congenial to the cultivars offered by most nurseries. Many I’ve planted didn’t make it through the first winter. Others petered out after several seasons. Only a few have actually expanded into clumps. Last year almost none bloomed after snow fell in late March and again the end of April.

When I first moved here in 1991, most of the iris I saw were yellow. Then I noticed some blue flowers, perhaps ones I’d ignored earlier because they were too familiar from elsewhere. Most recently, I’ve seen pastels and mixed lots of color in other people’s yards.

I don’t know if the changes in flower color reflect a change in taste, infilling by outlanders with different preferences, or a shared desire by gardeners to grow iris that is limited by what’s sold by local hardware stores and big boxes.

The reason I suspect people’s palettes reflect enduring cultural preferences is that one of my Spanish-speaking neighbors told me, with a nod towards heaven for protection, that he’d dug his yellow iris from a cemetery. The funereal plants may represent nothing more than the ability of one variety to survive where others did not, but the effort to bring them home bespeaks desire.

I also suspect that when Anglos look at German iris we evoke different cultural categories than do the Spanish-speaking natives. In the late 1940's. Leonora Curtin was very much puzzled when she was told the plants were called lirio, which she knew to refer to lilies, and heard the roots were poisonous. She knew the last couldn’t be true, because the rhizomes had long been used to treat dropsy and bowel problems.

The confusion may have arisen from the fact that the flowers of all members of the Iris genus look alike, three petals cupped upwards and three pointing down. They may or may not have beards, may grow from bulbs or rhizomes, may have wide or narrow leaves. It doesn’t matter. Everyone knows by the flowers they are iris and uses that term. If more is needed, most use color to distinguish one from another.

When Dioscorides discussed the medicinal uses of irises by the Greeks, he said they were the ones with varied colors. Similarly, when Pliny described the ones the Romans used in medicine, he distinguished them from others by their rainbow of colors. Neither warned against any poisonous ones.

If yellow is the preferred color, then people here may be thinking of the wetland Iris pseudacorus when they look at the flowers of the commercially available plants, not the dryland germanica. A recent blog posting from the Estramadura, home of the conquistadores, says lirio amarillo grows along the Guadiana river in Spain’s Badajoz province and is easy to find in villages where it is considered tóxica.

The source of the poison has never been determined, but Dietrich Frohne and Hans Jürgen Pfänder report, when the leaves are dried in hay, they can cause severe diarrhea in cattle. They also note “no relevant observations have been reported in recent times.”

The question for the anthropologically inclined is how a term and a perception of danger could have passed through generations in an area where yellow iris don’t grow. The answer again is that it didn’t matter what kind of iris was growing, so long as it was some iris that could be used to perpetuate folk knowledge.

The medium may have been cemeteries like the one visited by my neighbor. It would be easy to latch on to the fact that Moslems plant white iris on graves to draw some facile inferences. After all, Dykes says the Spanish took Iris albicans into the Sierra Madre of México where silver was mined.

However, German iris are so durable, so tolerant of neglect, they’re been used everywhere in graveyards in this country, especially by people who want something that blooms on Memorial Day. Their funeral use is a constant reinvention.

In the far south of the state, Robin Nutt recorded all the burials in the Spanish-speaking community’s San Jose cemetery in Las Cruces. When nothing survived, she listed whatever remained to indicate a body lay below. In many cases, it was a cross or cement perimeter, but in two cases it was flowers and in seven it was iris. She noted no other plants except some large trees which sheltered graves of two Sloan sisters and a Buergo who married a Sullivan.

Perhaps their persistence as the last relics of now unmarked graves explains why men who work on my property, who treat all plants as things to be exterminated, stop when they notice iris leaves and walk around. Memento mori command respect from both plantsmen like my neighbor and those with less regard for nature.

Notes:Curtin, Leonora Scott Muse. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore.

Dioscorides, Pedanius. De Materia Medica, translated by Tess Anne Osbaldeston, 2000.

Dykes, William Rickatson. The Genus Iris, 1913, reprinted by Dover, 1974.

Frohne, Dietrich and Hans Jürgen Pfänder. Poisonous Plants: a Handbook for Doctors, Pharmacists, Toxicologists, Biologists and Veterinarians, 2005.

Jiménez, José Antonio. “Iris pseudacorus,” Flora de Mérida website, 27 November 2010.

Nutt, Robin. “Dona Ana County, New Mexico-St. Jose Cemetery, Las Cruces,” at USGenWeb..

Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus). Naturalis Historia, translated by John Bostock and Henry Thomas Riley, 1856.

Photograph: Blue flowered bearded iris, 17 March 2011.

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