News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Breaking News

Mike Lunsford

May 16, 2010

The Off Season: Irises possess all the colors of the rainbow

INDIANAPOLIS — My son surprised me with a gift a week or so ago. He may be headed for a life in business suits and appointments and lunches with clients, but for now he mows grass and pulls weeds and trims shrubs to make ends meet. Among other lawns, he mows our church yard, the cemetery included.

The gift was a battered green bucket stuffed with irises that he had dug out around a graveyard plot. I had asked him to do it for me when he had the chance. He knows I love the flowers, and since I didn’t have the particular shade of pale yellow that grew near the church’s woods, and since there were so many of them, I asked that he bring me a few starts.

The soil-less flowers had already drooped in the warmth of the afternoon, and he wondered if he had gotten enough of their roots for us to even hope they had a chance to grow.

“Irises will grow if you have just a little of this bulb with them,” I told Evan as I pointed to the rhizome, as if I were a horticulturalist doing a noontime news segment. Truth be known, I only took botany in high school, but still hoped to impress my boy, who knew I’d have a story to tell whether he wanted to hear it or not.

“Why, I’ve thrown iris starts that were left after thinning out old beds and have seen them grow in our compost pile, even in old fall leaves,” I told him.

Since my day was done, and I wore clean clothes and recently scrubbed hands — and I didn’t want to ask him to take his favor a step further and dig out a scruffy flower bed in our front yard and transplant my new starts there — I whipped our beat-up wheelbarrow from behind the barn, dumped the flowers into it, dropped a half-bag of topsoil onto them, emptied a quarter of a watering can on the mess, and headed in for supper.

“They’ll be fine until I get to them tomorrow evening,” I told him, and he followed me in to do a little scrubbing on his own grunginess.

Irises have a long history. The most persistent story is that the name comes from the Greek word for “rainbow,” and it was the goddess Iris who acted as the go-between for heaven and Earth, a sort of messenger service for the gods. In those ancient times, it is said that purple irises — the most common color — were placed on the graves of women to summon Iris so she could help them find their way to the afterlife.

Another theory is that the flower’s name was derived from the word “eirein,” which means “to speak,” but that legend is much less glamorous and rarely recalled.

The unique shape and hardiness of the flower have made it even more popular through the ages. The Egyptians were captivated by irises and many paintings and drawings of them have been found in archeological digs. By the Middle Ages, the French seemed to take up the cause, eventually linking the flower to the monarchy, and the fleur-de-lis was born.

Today, the flower’s rhizome — a fancy word for rootstalk — is still used for such things as perfumes and herbal medicines, fixatives in nature-lovers’ toothpaste, and even as flavoring or coloring in some brands of gin. Oil squeezed from irises has even been used for aromatherapy.

I have grown irises around my place since it became my place nearly 30 years ago. Some of the first flowers I brought here were the irises that came from my mom’s flowerbeds a few miles away. They were mostly purple or lavender, although one of my favorite stands today is a gorgeous deep yellow with a falls — that’s the tongue-like petal that hangs down toward the stem of the plant — that is an even darker burgundy. Perhaps my favorite of all my irises are a smaller, deep blue-purple variety that is often called a Japanese iris. They grow not far from my door, small and delicate and orchid-like.

As you might suspect, there are many varieties of irises — more than 200, in fact. They are, of course, cultivated and bred and bought and sold, but they can also be commonly found along river banks and in meadows and on mountain slopes as far away as Europe and the Middle East, even in Africa and in Asia. 

Wayne McClintock knows irises well. I consider Wayne, and his wife, Betty, my neighbors, since they live close to my school and along the way to church, and just four miles or so down my road. They grow and sell irises; in fact, their big yard right now is at its peak in an explosion of colors. Some of my flowers were culled from his neatly kept beds.

Wayne is a laughing, friendly man. He says of his irises, “There are just so many colors, and they’re low maintenance. I have to get on my hands and knees to pull a few weeds, but for most part, they’re easy to grow. They’re just my thing, I guess.”

“The older varieties have the best scents,” Wayne adds. Some of the old purples and reds have a scent of grapes. Some evenings, my wife and me, we walk up and down the rows and talk and smell ’em. We enjoy it; they’re relaxing. We see a lot of cars drive past and slow way down. We know they’re lookin’. I’ve even thought of putting a bench out there to just sit and look.”

I know that many irises have sad names, for they are a popular graveyard decoration. There are “White Cemetery” and “Mourning” irises, but there are also the “Nazareth Iris,” and the “Harlequin Blue Flag,” the “Sierra,” and the “Rabbit Ear,” too. 

Two Sundays ago, I found myself standing at my mom’s grave; it was Mother’s Day, and I had brought her a handful of purple irises I had just clipped from a creek-stone bed near my house. It has become a tradition of sorts for me to do so because she loved the flowers — she told me so several times. In fact, I am certain that those flowers came from starts I brought from our home place.

As I set the already wilting blooms on Mom’s stone, I knew she needed no goddess, no bouquet of flowers, to help her find her way to the afterlife, for irises are fleeting things, like our lives.

If they teach me anything with their grand simplicity, it’s that we need to enjoy and cherish them while they’re here.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by e-mail at, or by regular mail c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Go to his Web page at for availability of his books and updates about speaking and signing opportunities.

Text Only | Photo Reprints
Mike Lunsford
  • Turtle Hello.jpg MIKE LUNSFORD: Wet in Wyoming, wandering turtles and other tales of the road

    It is an odd thing, after all the miles I drove a few weeks ago — to the mountains of Wyoming and back again — that today I remember most of all stopping along the road in two places nearly 600 miles apart.

    July 6, 2014 2 Photos

  • Top of the World, Ma.jpg THE OFF SEASON: Go West, old man … there’s a world to see

    I am writing this story in the shadows of the Black Hills, nearly spitting distance from the rocky-pink Badlands through which I’ll drive today. My wife and I came here to see things only the American West could show us, and we have not been disappointed in the effort and the miles it took.

    June 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • MET060314 dandelionsblossom.jpg MIKE LUNSFORD: It’s the true ‘face of spring’

    I’d be a liar if I said that I miss the yellow carpet of dandelions that dotted my front yard just a few weeks ago.

    June 8, 2014 2 Photos

  • Possum 3.jpg MIKE LUNSFORD: A face only a mother could love

    It is fitting that Mother’s Day comes when it does, for spring is a maternal season, one for new beginnings, for birth and rebirth, for flowering and nurturing and caring.

    May 11, 2014 3 Photos

  • Kinsey 3.jpg MIKE LUNSFORD: Lasting beauty: Miss Kinsey’s forsythia

    It always seems like it’s Sunday when we notice Miss Kinsey’s forsythia. Joanie and I will be driving home from church, most often with our windows down so we can enjoy springtime breezes and smells.

    April 27, 2014 3 Photos

  • IMG_9352.jpg MIKE LUNSFORD: One man’s trash is, well, another man’s trash

    Many people are growing weary of ecological doomsdayers, and if so, they are the folks most likely to tell us that Planet Earth isn’t in that bad of a shape, that it can repair itself, that new technologies just around the corner will solve our carbon emissions and greenhouse gases and oil consumption and the ever-growing pile of plastic in which we are drowning.

    April 13, 2014 2 Photos

  • Inscription 3.jpg MIKE LUNSFORD: A book inscribed is surely a book treasured

    I don’t think it’s a secret that I value books as one of life’s great joys; “I am, therefore I read,” could be a T-shirt-worthy motto of mine.

    March 30, 2014 6 Photos

  • MIKE LUNSFORD: Something to crow about, as our neighbors return

    It is in the spring, I think, that I notice crows the most. They are noisy neighbors year-round, but they come calling (I resisted saying “cawing”) in early March in earnest, and they do so before the frogs on our pond and the buds on our trees make the new season official.

    March 16, 2014

  • Sworn In.jpg Author visits birthplace of Calvin Coolidge

    Editor’s Note: Today, in this seventh and final installment of Mike Lunsford’s “New England Journal,” the writer visits a small town in south central Vermont, birthplace of the nation’s 30th President, Calvin Coolidge. Be sure to look for Mike’s regular column in Monday’s edition of the Tribune-Star.

    March 16, 2014 12 Photos

  • Waiting for Spring.jpg MIKE LUNSFORD: The long goodbye to winter

    I have no idea what the weather is to bring to us on the morning this story runs, but on the day I write most of it, the sun is shining, and we have just come off a weekend of pleasant warmth and cloudless skies.

    March 2, 2014 16 Photos

  • The Inlet at Thunder Hole.JPG Heaven on Earth: Writer gets lost — both figuratively and literally — at Acadia National Park

    Editor’s Note: Today, we continue the New England Journal as Mike Lunsford writes of a day hiking the Atlantic shoreline and the trails of Maine’s Acadia National Park.

    February 16, 2014 9 Photos

  • MIKE LUNSFORD: ‘To sleep, perchance to dream’

    I’ve been thankful this winter for a full propane tank and ample cold cranking amps and school snow-delay days that have kept me off the roads until the sun is up on the most frigid of these mornings.

    February 3, 2014

  • MET010714 lunsford art.jpg MIKE LUNSFORD: The night the snow fell

    You would think that the cold winds and deep snows that we endured two weeks ago would be old news by now, but as I stood in the checkout line at a grocery store just a few days back, a gallon of milk in one hand and a quart of orange juice in the other, a customer just ahead of me appeared to be stocking up to make a run for the Donner Pass, and all she could talk about was the storm.

    January 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • MET010414 lunsford 2.jpg THE OFF SEASON: Seeing the miraculousness of the ordinary

    It was just a few nights ago that I announced to my wife that I was headed outside to watch the International Space Station pass overhead.

    January 5, 2014 2 Photos

  • Millay at Steepletop.jpg ‘Afternoon on a Hill’: The formal poet who led an informal life — Edna St. Vincent Millay

    EDITOR’S NOTE: Today, we continue the New England Journal as Mike Lunsford writes of an afternoon exploring the rural gardens and home of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay near Austerlitz, N.Y. Join Lunsford in February for the sixth installment of this series as he wanders along the wooded shorelines of Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park.

    January 5, 2014 6 Photos

  • MET121713 lunsford radio.jpg MIKE LUNSFORD: Lying by the warm radioside

    I am writing this piece well before Christmas Eve, although you wouldn’t think that it can be far away by the look of things out my windows tonight.

    December 22, 2013 1 Photo

  • MET120713lunsford.jpg MIKE LUNSFORD: ‘The mind is a dark forest’

    If you hadn’t noticed by reading this newspaper or hearing me crow about it myself, I have another collection of stories out in print.

    December 8, 2013 1 Photo

  • Beach Roses.JPG Walk of a Lifetime: Writer discovers views fit for a painting while walking the cliffs of Prout’s Neck, home to famous artist Winslow Homer’s seaside studio

    Editor’s Note: Today, we continue the New England Journal as Mike Lunsford writes of a day walking the Maine seacoast in search of the great artist, Winslow Homer. Join Mike in January for the fifth installment of this series as he visits Edna St. Vincent Millay’s rural New York farm, Steepletop.

    December 1, 2013 8 Photos

  • MET100913 woolybear.jpg MIKE LUNSFORD: Inching on toward a cold winter?

    I’m not ready for snow and ice and the daggers of a north wind, but I have finally accepted the fact that winter is nearly here.

    November 24, 2013 1 Photo

  • B Plot at Epinal France.jpg MIKE LUNSFORD: ‘I’m going simply because I’ve got to … ’

    Late in the year 1944, the great Hoosier war correspondent Ernie Pyle, mentally and physically exhausted from his months reporting from the battlefields of Europe, came home for the last time. He was scrawny and gray.

    November 11, 2013 4 Photos

  • Black Cat.JPG MIKE LUNSFORD: Pumpkins: Good for the fork and the (carving) knife

    My wife and I are fairly frugal; we are budgeters and planners. In the fall, we set aside what we’ll need to heat the house and pay the doctor and buy sensible shoes for school. I think we’re going to have to open an account for pumpkins, too.

    October 28, 2013 3 Photos

  • Stephen Kim 1.jpg MIKE LUNSFORD: Déjà vu, courtesy of violinist prodigy

    It’s been said that the longer married couples stay together, the more they begin to think alike. I can’t refute that, although, for my wife’s sake, I hope a similar theory — that they begin to look alike, too — is far from true.

    October 14, 2013 2 Photos

  • Harry Evans Bridge II.jpg MIKE LUNSFORD: The beauty, spirit of a ‘lonely’ bridge

    It was the best kind of day a few Saturdays ago: not quite 70 degrees, a slight breeze from the northwest barely pushed flat-bottomed white clouds around in an otherwise blue sky.

    September 30, 2013 6 Photos

  • MET0909113goldenrod.jpg Mike Lunsford: The golden rods of September

    The sunflowers that are framed in my cabin’s eastside window are soon to become things of the past, for no matter how much I water and weed, the time has come for them to go.

    September 16, 2013 2 Photos

  • MET083013lunsford squirrel2.jpg MIKE LUNSFORD: It isn’t the end but it is the beginning of the end …

    I had every intention of writing about Labor Day today; it has become a tradition of sorts for me because it seems as though my column and the holiday have an annual convergence. But as I thumbed through a number of other stories I’d written on the subject, I felt I had nothing new to say.

    September 2, 2013 1 Photo

  • tslunsford MIKE LUNSFORD: A long day’s journey into night

    We arrived at the sprawling hulk of a motel well after dark, the parking lot pitch black except for a few spots illuminated by flickering blue lights that hummed a monotonous tune.

    August 19, 2013 1 Photo

  • Beulah Gravestone.jpg MIKE LUNSFORD: Searching for Beulah Jane

    EDITOR’S NOTE: Today’s Mike Lunsford column is the second in a two-part story on his search to solve a family mystery. Part 1 was published in Monday’s Tribune-Star. Both are available at

    August 6, 2013 2 Photos 1 Story

  • MIKE LUNSFORD: The girl who wasn’t my grandmother

    EDITOR’S NOTE: We travel this week with Mike Lunsford on a journey across miles and memories, as he seeks answers to a long-ago family mystery. Today’s column is the first of a two-part story. Part II will run Tuesday.

    August 5, 2013 1 Story

  • A Sailboat on the Lake.jpg MIKE LUNSFORD: ‘Once more to the lake…’

    We are heading home today after spending a few days on Lake Michigan, and I am a bit sad for the leaving. We have made it a habit to come here every year, dragging weary bones and beach towels and enough breakfast food to last us a week. And, as expected, when I turn my back on the cool blueness of the lake for the last time this afternoon, I’ll know that another year has gone by, and there’s no getting it back.

    July 22, 2013 1 Photo

  • Frost Writing C…Near Ripton.jpg Poets at heart, writer, wife walk paths that Frost walked

    A few summers ago, my family traveled to New England to see what we could see. Along the way, we dipped our toes into Walden Pond, holy waters to those who have read Henry David Thoreau. My wife and I returned to the region last month to seek shrines that poets at heart revere: the Vermont homes where Robert Frost wrote magical words.

    July 21, 2013 7 Photos

Latest News Poll
AP Video
Robot Writes Jewish Torah Scroll Joy Fills Streets of Cleveland As LeBron Returns Bull Run Comes to Middle America Space Station Shipment Launched From Virginia Raw: Divers, Snorkelers at Undersea 'Concert' Wisconsin Cop Ready to Roll...On Skateboard Israel Deploys Ground Troops to Gaza Strip Raw: Australia Hosts Annual Beer Can Regatta Giant Whale Vacuumed in New York City Hamburger Champion Downs 26 Burgers Lightning Kills Two in National Park in Colorado Texas Shooting Suspect Collapses in Court Raw: Truck Crash Spills Turkeys on Va. Highway Ana Ortiz on 'Devious Maids' Finale Raw: Stunning Timelapse of WC Final Host City LeBron: Move Back to Cleveland 'Exciting' Proposed Bill to Regulate NY Costumed Characters Diaz and Segel Strip Off for 'Sex Tape' WH: LeBron's Move a 'Powerful Statement' Arizona Mom of Missing Baby Released From Prison
NDN Video
Germany Wins The 2014 FIFA World Cup!!! RAW VIDEO: Stampede injures ten at Georgia World Congress Center Cellphone Video Shows Assault Tracy Morgan released from rehab month after crash LeBron: Move Back to Cleveland 'Exciting' Cleveland welcomes home LeBron Houston Killer Collapses in Court When Read Capital Murder Charges for Allegedly Killing Family of Six Worst Valet Ever Wrecks $500K Lamborghini Glee Star Becca Tobin's Boyfriend Matt Bendik Found Dead in Hotel Aerial fish restocking in Utah ScarJo Channels Marilyn Monroe Obama Responds to Hecklers on Immigration Tiny Hamsters Who Ate Burritos are Back for a Tiny Hedgehog's Party Watch Kelly Ripa Get Soaked! 'Referee' Hands Out Yellow Cards for Social Faux Pas in NYC 2014 Emmy Nominees: 8 Snub Shockers Emma Watson Is Va-Va-Voom in Valentino 7 Infamous Sports Blowouts Argentina tops Holland in World Cup semifinals News flush: Japanese toilet exhibition making a splash

Click HERE to read all your Parade favorites including Hollywood Wire, Celebrity interviews and photo galleries, Food recipes and cooking tips, Games and lots more.
  • -


    March 12, 2010