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?
“Clusiana is said to have travelled from the Mediterranean to England in 1636, which, as the first tulips had reached our shores about 1580, is an early date in tulip history. [She] takes her name from Carolus Clusius (or Charles de Lecluse) who became Professor of botany at Leiden in 1593….
“Her native home will suggest the conditions under which she likes to be grown: a sunny exposure and a light rich soil. If it is a bit gritty, so much the better. Personally I like to see her springing up amongst grey stones, with a few rather stunted shrubs of Mediterranean character to keep her company: some dwarf lavender, and the grey-green cistus making a kind of amphitheatre behind her while some creeping rosemary spreads a green mat at her feet….
“A grouping of this kind has the practical advantage that all its members enjoy the same treatment as to soil and aspect, and, being regional compatriots, have the air of understanding one another and speaking the same language. Nothing has forced them into an ill-assorted companionship.”
Sometimes I’m easily amused, such as when I post photographs of tulips in front of a gray stone, then get lucky enough to find a quotation (like the one from Vita-Sackville West above) that describes tulips among gray stones — w00t!
His heart was in his garden; but his brain Wandered at will among the fiery stars. Bards, heroes, prophets, Homers, Hamilcars, With many angels stood, his eye to gain; The devils, too, were his familiars: And yet the cunning florist held his eyes Close to the ground, a tulip bulb his prize….
“Tulipa clusiana: Originally from Kashmir, northern Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, this plant, first described by Augustin Pyramus de Candolle in 1803, is named for the great botanist Carolus Clusius, who in the latter part of the sixteenth century was professor of Botany at Leiden University and one of the first to study bulbs systematically. Nicknamed the ‘Lady Tulip,’ T. clusiana is a slender plant with a small starlike flower with carmine-red blotches on the three outer petals, a violet base, and narrow leaves that are undulating and grayish-green….
“Tulipa clusiana Cynthia: A cultivar of T. clusiana that was registered by C. G. van Tubergen in 1959, the outer petals of ‘Cynthia’ are reddish, edged chartreuse-green, and from a distance the flower appears soft orange. Inside it is feathered red on green and the base is purplish. The bulb is the same size as that of T. clusiana. ‘Cynthia’ grows well and is 25 centimeters in height.…
“Tulipa clusiana var. chrysantha: Described in 1948 by Sir Alfred Daniel Hall but known before then, this tulip was found in the mountains of northern Afghanistan in the same area where T. clusiana was found. It was first known as T. chrysantha and later as a variety of T. clusiana. A slender variety with small leaves and a flower form that is slightly elongated, its crisply pointed petals are deep yellow with a vast red blush on the exterior, visible when the flower is closed.”
On the same stroll through the gardens where I snagged photos of red tulips (see Some Time with Red Tulips (1 of 2) and Some Time with Red Tulips (2 of 2)), I also came across a few nice batches of Tulipa clusianavarieties, all aglow in the morning sunlight. Exactly which variant these flowers belong to escapes me a bit; they’re similar enough that I included mention of two of the varieties above, since they’re probably one of those two. They are all clearly members of the T. clusiana family, however; and they’re all commonly referred to by the name “Lady Tulip” — blooming in white, yellow, orange-yellow, and pale-yellow colors, and typically featuring shades of red on the outer sides of their petals. Personally I’ve never seen white ones — but I’d like to! — as it seems the yellow/orange varieties are more common here in the southeast.
April cold with dropping rain Willows and lilacs brings again, The whistle of returning birds, And trumpet-lowing of the herds. The scarlet maple-keys betray What potent blood hath modest May, What fiery force the earth renews, The wealth of forms, the flush of hues….
Hither rolls the storm of heat; I feel its finer billows beat Like a sea which me infolds; Heat with viewless fingers moulds, Swells, and mellows, and matures, Paints, and flavors, and allures, Bird and brier inly warms, Still enriches and transforms, Gives the reed and lily length, Adds to oak and oxen strength, Transforming what it doth infold, Life out of death, new out of old… Fires gardens with a joyful blaze Of tulips, in the morning’s rays….
“The extraordinary outburst of financial speculation in the province of Holland during the 1630s (‘tulipomania‘) is well known. Although still theoretically under Spanish rule, the Dutch had been building up an extremely successful economy, largely through trade, with many of the key aspects of modern capitalism being invented in Amsterdam; however, given the country’s geography, investment in land was difficult — so money had to seek other routes to grow. Tulips were one such speculative investment; they became status symbols for the newly rich merchant and financier class, which stimulated both a rise in prices and efforts to breed ever more exquisite blooms….
“The most sought-after bulbs were those infected with the tulip breaking potyvirus, which caused elaborate streaking in the petals. As far as the breeder was concerned, a tulip was only as good as its infection, which (since there was no understanding of either genetics or viruses) had to be left entirely to chance.”
This is the second of two posts featuring photos of tulips I took a few weeks ago; the first post is Some Time with Red Tulips (1 of 2). A few of these streaked varieties appeared in that first post; this one shows some with peppermint stripes and those with large streaks of yellow and orange. And today we learned that the presence of these streaks is not just a flower variation: the streaks are caused by tulip breaking virus — and tulips are only one of two plant genuses (the other is lilies) where potyvirus causes color variations in the flower petals. Who knew?!?
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s May Day poem is an elaborate meditation on seasonal transitions, especially that of the advent of spring, the emergence of bird-song, and the resurgence of new plants and flowers. I excerpted a very short portion — a section that led up to the (appropriate to my photoshoot) appearance of tulips in morning light — but the poem is much, much longer. If you’d like to take a look at the rest, here’s a link to the whole thing: May-Day by Ralph Waldo Emerson.