News From Terre Haute, Indiana

May 16, 2010

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

By Mike Lunsford
Special to the Tribune-Star

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.