The fleur-de-lis (from the French "fleur," meaning flower, and "lis," meaning lily) is a flower symbol widely thought to be based on the iris. Throughout recorded history, the fleur-de-lis has carried meaning as a symbol, and the iris plant itself has played an important role.
Iris germanica is believed to be the parent of all modern-day bearded irises. The pleasantly scented iris flower has six perianth segments--three outer sepals called "falls," which alternate with three inner sepals called "standards." Each sepal is decorated with tufts of hair, usually white with yellow tips, called the "beard." The sword-shaped leaves, which can reach 2 feet, grow from rhizomes. When flowering, the plant can reach 3 feet.
The iris takes its name from the Greek word for rainbow. In Greek mythology, Iris was the goddess who served as a messenger of gods, and acted as a link between heaven and earth. The fleur-de-lis symbol appeared in both Minoan and ancient Egyptian art and sculpture.
Symbol of Royalty
The fleur-de-lis was adopted as a symbol of sovereignty by the Bourbon kings of France. According to the Baronage Press heraldic information website, the symbol was first used on a royal shield by Louis the VII in the 12th century, but it might have been used on pennants even earlier. When revolutionaries seized control of France from the throne in 1789, the fleur-de-lis disappeared as a symbol of French government. It remained a popular ornament with French settlers in North America, however, and it still is regarded as an emblem of the city of New Orleans.
The fleur-de-lis from ancient times was considered a symbol of purity. It was readily adopted by Christians who believed that the flower sprang from the tears of Eve as she left Eden. The fleur-de-lis also had associations with the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Mary. Others meanings of the iris are faith, wisdom and hope. The fleur-de-lis is the symbol of Scouting.
The rhizomes of the iris (or orris root) have long been used in perfumery. The production of the dried roots was an important industry in 19th century Florence, Italy, and the iris became the emblem of that city. Not only does orris root have a pleasant scent on its own, it can also be used as a fixative to strengthen the scent of other flowers.
Orris root was also used in the manufacture of alcohol. In Germany, it was suspended in beer barrels to keep the beer from going stale. French winemakers hung it in wine casks to enhance the wine's flavor. In England, it was used as a flavoring for brandies.