Goddess of the Garden
April 01 2021
In every garden there is something bigger and deeper than humanity at work. We gardeners are but one facet of the powers necessary to create gardens. Humans have been adapting their environment to provide for themselves for thousands and thousands of years-including the Americas. The history book ‘1491’ by Charles C. Mann is a fascinating look into what the Western Hemisphere was like before Columbus. Perhaps not an untouched wilderness at all-perhaps, in his words, “the world’s largest gardens.” There is evidence to suggest that the first peoples all over the Americas had massive farming and gardening projects. Seems like we just can’t help ourselves. Some of us anyway!
Though we do not do it alone, we are the creators of our gardens-and what a gift it is, following in the footsteps of countless generations before us; back to when those first people discovered how to plant a seed or adapt a forest to provide food. And then, after Columbus, spread those plants all over the world. Every gardener’s heritage.
Speaking of goddesses (yeah, I kinda was) or gods if you wish, there is a plant that is named after the Greek goddess of the rainbow-Iris. It’s fitting, iris come in a rainbow of colors. The Greek goddess Iris was a messenger to Zeus and Hera and a companion to female souls on the way to heaven. It was tradition to plant iris on a woman’s grave.
Iris plants were brought to Egypt in 1469 BC by King Thutmose III, an avid gardener, from Syria. During the Middle Ages they became a symbol of royalty with the familiar fleur-de-lis used by the French monarchy. What a distinguished heritage for a common garden flower.
There are around 300 species of iris, some of which are our familiar bearded iris, Japanese iris, native wild iris, the delightful iris reticulata (a tiny spring blooming iris), and my favorite Variegated iris. If there’s one drawback to iris, it’s that their bloom time is relatively short and the plants are a bit nondescript the rest of the summer. Not so variegated iris, the leaves are lovely on their own-striped with white or yellow. Their light purple/lavender colored flowers smell like grape kool-aid to me. They are also called Zebra, Sweet, or Dalmatian Iris. Sweet because the rhizomes can be dried to make orris root, a perfume fixative. Dalmation because it is a province of Croatia to which they are native. Zebra, well that’s self-explanatory.
Iris flowers have three upright petals called standards and three downward petals (sepals) called falls. They really are an aristocratic flower. If you plant one rhizome, within a few years you will have a good sized clump which will eventually need to be lifted and divided. Flowering will decrease so you’ll know when it’s time. Or maybe you just want to share. Plant the rhizomes level with and close to the soil surface.
There are indeed more forces at work in the garden than us, there is room for love and passion and joy. There is room for us. So scatter my ashes in the iris garden please, just in case the rainbow comes.
Iris germanica-bearded iris
Iris siberica-Siberian iris
Iris ensata-Japanese iris
Iris missouriensis-Western Blue Flag, wild iris
Iris reticulata-netted iris
Iris pallida ‘Variegata’