The worldwide success story of the iris probably began around 1479 B.C., when King Thutmose III of Egypt had conquered Syria where irises grew in great profusion. Being a gardener as well as a warrior king, Thutmose ensured that irises should be immortalized in sculptures at the Temple of Amon at Karnak, as well as in the gardens of Egypt. That is where this story begins.
Irises go back to ancient times in Egypt where they were immortalized in drawings as symbols of the renewal of life, and in many other parts of the world where they have grown in the wild for thousands of years. This lovely flower is named after the Greek messenger of the gods, Iris, who was said to have golden wings and to travel on a rainbow. “Iris” means “rainbow” in Greek, fittingly representing the many colors of the iris flower.
Medicines and Perfumes
In the ancient world, the Indian and Egyptian cultures were among those that used iris rhizomes for medicinal purposes and for the manufacture of perfume. Perfumes were applied as offerings to the gods, and iris byproducts like orris roots were thrown onto fires to create scents that would be pleasing to the gods. Centuries later, the practice of using dried iris rhizomes was a major industry in 19th-century Florence, Italy. The iris became the emblem of Florence. In neighboring Germany, orris roots were hung in barrels of beer to keep the beer fresh. The same applied to casks of wine in France.
The Frankish king Clovis I adopted the fleur-de-lis as his emblem in the early 500s, following his conversion to Christianity. The tradition of the fleur-de-lis in France continued through the centuries. In 1147, King Louis VII had a dream that prompted him to adopt the purple iris as his emblem. Then, in 1376, King Charles V applied three fleur-de-lis to his coat of arms. In the United States, the fleur-de-lis is the emblem of New Orleans, and the iris is the official State Cultivated Flower of Tennessee.
In the New World, early records of irises date back to the 1600s in Virginia. Some irises had journeyed from Europe with early settlers. Perhaps they had the Moorish conquests to thank for bringing irises to places like the Alhambra Palace in Grenada, Spain. Even earlier than that, it was the Roman Empire that established trade routes in the Mediterranean that made the passage of irises possible. By the time King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain defeated the Moors and supported the adventures of Columbus in 1492, Holland had developed many varieties of irises that would make the journey to the New World.
Today, North American irises include three noteworthy groups: the Blue Flag Irises, the Louisiana Irises and the Pacific Coast Irises. The Blue Flag is also called the wild iris, and grows in the east. The Louisiana or Hexagona Irises are native to the Mississippi Basin, Florida, Alabama and Georgia. The Pacific Coast Irises are found in California, Oregon and Washington State.