I am indebted to Russell Studebaker, from In Our Garden section of Tulsa World, for his article on the significance of a certain iris with a long history.
When I think of Memorial Day, I am reminded of cemeteries and flowers. But I'm also reminded of one plant in particular - an iris.
From the Arabian Peninsula comes an iris that has been integrated into our culture. Ancient Muslim soldiers carried rhizomes of Iris albican and planted them at the graves of their fallen comrades.
When the Moors occupied Spain for 400 years, they continued the tradition. Then the Spanish brought this iris to Florida during their colonization and used it at graves, just as they had in their homeland.
Americans adopted the custom, and the iris has been planted in cemeteries all over the South.
Its common name became Cemetery Iris.
The Cemetery Iris is so prevalent in parts of North America that many think it is a native plant. In fact, it is a sterile hybrid and may be the oldest iris in cultivation. Its culture needs added to its survival in the country as it is tolerant of dry summers.
In yesteryears, few cemeteries had water available for use in their landscapes and many, particularly those in rural areas, did not mow until shortly before Memorial Day. This late maintenance meant that these plants had time to build up stored food reserves before they could be cut down. Those two facts meant the iris thrived in cemeteries.
The slightly off-white flowers are borne in groups of two to three on 10- to 12-inch stems in April. The flowers are around 3 inches wide with yellow "beards." These beards are formed by long rows of feathery stamens marking the entrance of the outer petals, called the falls. Basically, the flowers look like bearded irises, and they have a slight fragrance.
These irises grow from flat rhizomes like the bearded garden iris and multiply rapidly, with side branching and forking. They thrive in the poorest and driest of soils, yet another strategy for their survival in cemeteries, and they seem to have few problems or pests. Left alone, they make a large grouping, but they are easily divided at any season, usually in the fall or spring shortly after flowering.
When dividing, include one good-sized fan of leaves with each division and plant the rhizomes near the surface of the soil. They require good drainage to prosper and full or partial sun.
Drought-tolerant Cemetery Iris resembles the bearded iris. RUSSELL STUDEBAKER /for Tulsa World
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A mail-order source for the Cemetery Iris is The Southern Bulb Co., P.O. Box 350, Golden, Texas, 75444. The company can be reached by phone at 1-888-285-2486 or online at tulsaworld.com/southernbulbs