“Iris was the Goddess of the Rainbow, and in Greek mythology she is hardly distinguishable from the natural phenomenon itself. On occasions she seems to have acted as messenger from the gods, as a link between Olympus and mortals below, in that she touched both sky and earth….
“Iris, the flower, may surely be said to have borrowed its various colors from the sky. There are few iris in cultivation which are, in color, different to the tints the sky can show, and there are few skies, of untroubled blue, thundery purple, fresh primrose or dying pink, which might not find their colors reflected in the petals of the modern iris….”
“Biologists surmise that elaborate patterning in flowers like the iris probably results in response to pollinators. It’s hard to imagine what iris patterns look like to bees or other insects…. The next time you’re in the garden, just imagine what a bee thinks.”
“The bearded iris gains its name from the line of thick hairs that emerges from the throat of the flower. These hairs form a long, furry caterpillar towards the back of the falls, and their purpose is to guide insects, such as bees, towards the pollen. Bearded irises are the largest group with the greatest number of cultivated varieties. They are also the most popular group of irises for garden use.
“In the wild, bearded irises grow in an area that stretches from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia and from the Arabian Peninsula north to southern Russia. They usually are found in a sunny place where the soil is poor and well drained. The flowers, which always have large petals, are borne on stiff stems above broad, sword-like, and usually soft green leaves. These form a handsome clump that is invaluable in a garden.”
“The citrusy range of tones we call orange makes my mouth water. Orange bearded irises sparkle and gleam on warm spring days, the perfect show for a mid-afternoon stroll through the garden with a mimosa….
“The history of orange bearded irises… traces back to breeding efforts with yellows and pinks, work that was by no means easy. Some of the first orange-colored irises, blends of off-colors or faint allusions to orange by present definitions, lacked good floral substance and architecture. Some of the best examples of these new colors came from crosses involving median irises… and early dwarfs… coupled with further line breeding and use of apricot-colored irises that were the by-products of pink breeding. Many breeders have risen to the challenge of developing orange irises with distinctive colors, good form and substance, and sound growing habits.”
Hello! More irises!
This is the first of two posts featuring irises from Oakland Cemetery’s gardens whose pink, peach, and orange colors caught my eye, so I gathered them together.
Like many irises, these all have beards, but don’t need to shave. I learned recently about the evolution of the iris’s beard from a delightful documentary called Plant Odyssey, which takes you on a tour through the culture and history of four influential flowers: roses, waterlilies, tulips, and irises. The documentary describes how the iris modified its own structure to develop beards in coevolution with pollinating bees, and how the shapes and colors of the beards are visually interesting to the bees, but also help dislodge pollen.
Those irises producing beards that attracted more bees were more frequently pollinated, giving them a selective advantage — and leading them to produce longer and more brightly colored beards, in order to — you guessed it! — attract even more bees. You can read a little about how this process works on Wikipedia (at this link) — but if you have a Discovery Plus subscription (either from Discovery Plus or Amazon Video), the documentary is a very compelling watch.
“The great season for tall bearded irises begins in late April and early May in places such as northern Mississippi, two weeks later in Washington, and progressively later farther north. Fortunately irises have not lost their fragrance through many generations of breeding, and every iris grower knows and revels in the variety of scents. Some are like sweet peas, some like ripe grapes, and some have an indefinable sweetness not like anything else….
“They like full sun. They bloom magnificently in slight shade, with six hours of sun a day, but not so freely as in full sun. They like rich soil, preferably a sandy loam, though clay loam, even acid clay loam, does perfectly well provided water does not stand on the plants for hours after a rain….
“The spring after planting there will usually be one bloom stalk, and the second year there will be five, say, and in the third year perhaps ten or twelve. They are best dug up after the third year, divided and replanted using three young vigorous rhizomes set a foot apart in a triangle, the fans all pointing the same direction.”
“Frail and delicate in appearance, the Algerian [iris] is really a tough which flourishes best in a sort of rubbish heap of its own. If you plant it in rich soil, and allow it so much as to catch sight of a lump of manure, its crop of leaves will be indeed extravagant, but blossoms there will be none. But if you plant it in contemptible rubbish such as brick-bats and gravel, with the especial addition of any old mortar rubble which the builders may have left over, and which is rich in lime, you will get a crop of flowers… to fill every glass you may have available.”
I’m fairly sure that the last six photos are those of an Algerian Iris (officially, Iris unguicularis), and it was growing in conditions similar to those described by Vita Sackville-West above: next to a crumbly stone wall and rooted in a combination of old wood chips, gravel, grass, and sand. There were only a handful of irises like this in the gardens — and I was glad to have captured them, as they are probably gone by now.
O heavenly fire, life’s life, the eye of day, Whose nimble waves upon the starry night Of boundless ether love to play, Carrying commands to every gliding sprite To feed all things with colour, from the ray Of thy bright-glancing, white And silver-spinning light: Unweaving its thin tissue for the bow Of Iris, separating countless hues Of various splendour for the grateful flowers To crown the hasting hours, Changing their special garlands as they choose.
“The old blue germanica is a wonderfully useful plant, quite the best tempered and most generous I ever met for dry, overhung, or starved positions, therefore it appears in large bands and masses at the back of these borders round the old Yew trunks, and is a grand bit of colour when in full flower. The purple form known as Kharput does almost as well under this studied neglect, but its flower-stems being taller it is inclined to drive forward towards the light and then to fall over.”
Iris Season at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens falls between Tulip Season and Lily Season — three seasons I made up that are actually sub-seasons of spring, “sub-season” being something I also made up.
Nevertheless: it’s a useful way to think of my photography adventures, since I’ll usually trip over there and focus (more or less) on one type of flower at a time. With that in mind, my previous post about black irises (see Black Iris Variations (and Hallucinations)) and this one and the next one and some-number more after that will be filled with irises — as I sort through about 350 iris photos and separate them into groups of those that are similarly colored.
This post is the first of two featuring those that are blue, or mostly blue with swatches of purple — and, as I described in the previous post — these blue and purple combinations can be rendered quite effectively with either color dominating, depending on the adjustments I make in Lightroom. I kept them more blue because that’s how I saw and remembered them — but they may look purplier to you if you’re viewing them on a gadget that emphasizes warmer colors, or has a blue-light reduction feature.
“Iris is a Greek word originally applied to the rainbow; no other name could so well describe a flower which provides us with such a wonderful range of colour. Here to our hand is a magic palette furnished with living colour with which to paint our canvas. We can pass from the most ethereal ice-blue through lavender, mauve and violet to black-purple….
“White, ivory and primrose merge into yellow and thence to orange, which, in turn, glows into copper and deepens into chocolate-brown. Soft grey flushes to pink and this resolves into old rose, wine red and mahogany. Nor must magenta be forgotten — that curiously intriguing colour which antagonises us in youth and is only appreciated at its true value when we reach middle age — a difficult colour admittedly, but one which stimulates the colour-sense and which, if thoughtfully and skilfully used, adds interest and vivacity to a mixed colour border.”
“The mainstream gardening public is smitten with blue, but the horticultural deviants of the world lust for black. Black flowers are seductive, luring gardeners in with a color it seems we’re just not supposed to have. Black irises rev it up a notch with large, ruffled flowers and silken petals that drip with color; their novelty and rarity entice the senses….
“Fortunately for iris lovers, black flowers run the gamut of the bearded iris continuum…. Always about packing plants together into whatever space I have, I love black irises for all the things you can do with them in the garden. Black and yellow, black and white, black and red, black and orange, black and pink all sound colorfully exciting because of the drama and contrast they bring to the garden setting. What plant can really bring as much drama to the herbaceous border in May as a black bearded iris?”
This is true: No one ever steps in the same garden twice.
That’s my botanical version of the well-known Heraclitus concept of a natural world that constantly changes. If you have a garden, or visit public gardens, or even have some houseplants, you know what it means. When I photograph plants and flowers at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens — as I so often do — I’m immersed in a slice of nature that always feels familiar, yet is different every time. It encompasses 48 acres — over two million square feet — of exotic and Georgia-native flora, so I (apparently!) never run out of photographic subjects.
I went iris-hunting two weeks ago, knowing that many of the property’s irises bloom in early May. I chose the quotation at the top of this post — which describes the many iris flower colors — because it so accurately represents the range of colors I encountered. About an hour into my photo shoot, though, I remembered the irises featured below: irises commonly referred to by people in my ‘hood as “black irises” and the only irises on the property that look like this.
It’s an especially fascinating flower to photograph and process, because of it’s tonal range and different textures. In Adobe Lightroom (as in most photo editing programs), there are hue, saturation, and luminance panels that let you adjust individual colors in a photograph: red, orange, yellow, green, aqua, blue, purple, and magenta. This iris is one of the very rare flowers that contains every single one of those colors, so great fun can be had playing around with the adjustments just to see how the appearance of the flower changes by increasing or decreasing individual colors. In the rest of this post, I explore what that means.
I took these photographs on two separate trips to the garden: the first one a brightfully sunny day, and the second one an overcast day that gradually gave way to peaking sunlight. These first four photographs — taken on the sunny day — show one unopened and several partially-opened blooms. The tip of the unopened bloom and the ruffled edges of the others are such a deep purple and dark blue combination that — especially in bright sun — they absorb so much light that they appear black…. which may explain why this flower is informally called a black iris.
As the flowers open, shades of purple dominate, but the ruffles still show the same saturated purple-blue blend that looks black. Bright sunlight created intense shadows on each flower petal, but also brought out the red, orange, and yellow colors near the centers.
While processing the photos above, I started wondering how they would look without the bright lighting, so went back on a second day — when it was overcast, the morning after nighttime thunderstorms — to take another set of photos. In these eleven images, you see the effects of softer light: the appearance of black around the edges of the petals is less prevalent, and the purple (and some of the blue) now dominate. As you progress through the eleven photos, you also progress through the changing sunlight: it was cloudiest when I took the first four photos, then the clouds started to disperse by the time I took the last ones. By the final image in this series, we’re back to nearly full sunlight again, and black reasserts its prominence.
Here’s where these irises live, in front of a grave marker that is so old it’s mostly illegible. You can, however, just make out the year on the gravestone — it’s 1858 — and in my Victorian imagination, these irises have grown here for over 160 years. That’s not likely of course — but I did just say I was imagining that!
Anthocyanin is the pigment that produces purple, blue, or black color in flowers — though black is often just saturated (or heavily shadowed) renditions of purple and blue. The pigment is so intense (and near the outer boundaries of colors camera sensors can capture) that digital cameras have trouble accurately reproducing it — which is why you often see blue or purple flower photographs whose color appears unnatural. These pigments can also be challenging during post-processing: you may think you’re recreating the flower’s real-life colors, but since they vary so much depending on the lighting conditions and even slight adjustments you make, it’s hard to be sure. And, really, what is “real-life” anyway?
Because there is so much purple and blue in these irises, altering those colors in Lightroom can produce variations that are quite striking. Here’s one of the iris photos as it came out of the camera. You might think that this must be the flower’s color — but you’d be wrong because I overexposed the image to capture more detail in the shadows. That brightened the image overall, and, in doing so, created greater emphasis on the purple colors over the blue. The swatches of blue you see on the two falling petals would have appeared darker (nearly black) if the image was not overexposed.
Here’s the image after I completed processing it, with adjustments to add texture and detail, add saturation to the blue and purple colors, deepen the shadows and blacks, and add brightness to the reds and oranges at the flower’s center. This is the same image as one I posted above, repeated here as the starting point for some fun times in Lightroom.
Here I removed most of the blue color from the original image, by shifting its hue from blue to purple. The flower is now more consistently purple in this version, since the blue that threads through the center of the petals and blue pixels throughout have been replaced with purple. Could this be the flower’s actual color?
In this variation, I took an opposite approach: I left the blue color alone but shifted the purple color toward blue. This could be the iris’s actual color — it’s not hard to find blue irises like this — couldn’t it?
For this variation, I shifted purple to magenta. Much of the blue falls out of the image, and I end out with a color that may or may not appear natural to you. This might also happen if a similarly-colored image was taken with the wrong white balance, or if a purple/blue image was viewed on a device with a warmer (more yellow, like sunlight) display setting.
This Pepto-Bismol version rattles the brain — or perhaps the stomach — a little, but if I had posted all the images with this treatment, could I convince you the flowers looked like this? I think I might get away with it….
None of these three variations are outside the range of what an iris might look like, if you looked at it in a garden under different lighting conditions. The third is a stretch, perhaps, but only if you haven’t encountered magenta-colored irises in the wild.
For this final variation, I got buzzed on a fourth cup of coffee and started hallucinating, as one does. I frenetically tapped out combined color adjustments: I shifted blue towards purple and purple towards magenta, then added saturation to blue, purple, and magenta. A winged pollinator might see the flower in a similar way, with the iridescent aqua and blue colors running from the edges of the petals to the center like a runway pointing to the flower’s hot-spot. I know this because I used to be a bee (this may or may not be true). Yet you, as a human, don’t see it like that: you probably conclude this is an inaccurate color scheme for an iris blossom…
… but I guess I should ask: if you think it’s wrong, how do you know?