"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag

Black Iris Variations (and Hallucinations)

From “The Handling of Colour” in Irises: Their Culture and Selection by Gwendolyn Anley:

“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.”

From “Over the Rainbow: Bearded Irises and Your Garden” in A Guide to Bearded Irises: Cultivating the Rainbow for Beginners and Enthusiasts by Kelly Norris:

“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?

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Leopard Flower Variations (On Black)

From The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture (Vol. 1) by Liberty Hyde Bailey:

“Blackberry Lily. Leopard Flower. A hardy, herbaceous perennial, which is an old garden favorite. The first of the popular names comes from the clusters of shining black roundish seeds, and the second from the flower, which is orange, spotted red. It is more commonly sold as Pardanthus, which also means leopard flower. Perianth [segments] oblong, the [three] inner slightly shorter and spirally twisting as they fade: stamens in one group only at the base: [capsules] pear-shaped, the valves ultimately falling away…. Of easy culture in rich, sandy loam and in a sunny place….

“The seed-stalks are sometimes used with dried grasses for decoration. It is said that the birds sometimes mistake the seeds for blackberries.”


For this post, I took a few of my Iris domestica photographs from the previous post (see Leopard Flower Variations — and used various Lightroom masks to paint the backgrounds black and isolate the blooms or, in some cases, isolate the blooms, stems, and leaves.

Thanks for taking a look!

Leopard Flower Variations

From Bulbs and Tuberous-Rooted Plants: Their History, Description, Methods of Propagation and Complete Directions for their Successful Culture in the Garden, Dwelling and Greenhouse (1893) by C. L. Allen:

“Blackberry Lily or Leopard Flower: This handsome flower is not a lily, as its popular name implies, but belongs to the Iris family. Its [early] name, Pardanthus chinensis, is derived from pardos, leopard, and anthos, a flower — hence leopard flower; and chinensis means of China. The Chinese Leopard  Flower was formerly very common in gardens, but like many another deserving plant, has given way to the universal craze for novelties.

“The stem grows three or four feet high, branches at the top, where it bears regular flowers of an orange color, and abundantly dotted with crimson or reddish-purple spots. One great merit of the Leopard flower is that it is late flowering, being in bloom from midsummer to September….

“After the pretty flowers have faded, the capsules grow on and enlarge, and when quite ripe the walls of the capsules break away and curl up, leaving a central column of shining, black-coated seed, looking so much like a well developed, ripe blackberry, that the fruit, if not so handsome as the flower, is quite as interesting, and shows that in this instance it does not require any effort of the imagination to see the applicability of perhaps its most common name — the Blackberry Lily….

“The plant is now botanically known as Belamcanda chinensis.”

From Iris domestica on Wikipedia:

Iris domestica, commonly known as leopard lily, blackberry lily, and leopard flower, is an ornamental plant in the family Iridaceae. In 2005, based on molecular DNA sequence evidence, Belamcanda chinensis, the sole species in the genus Belamcanda, was transferred to the genus Iris and renamed Iris domestica.”


I went on a “safari” recently, hunting for tiger lilies at my favorite local nearby garden cemetery. I found several streaks of tiger lilies, many in full bloom and resting comfortably at the boundaries between sunny and shady sections of the garden. Those photos are currently being wrangled by my Post-Processing Department and will be out soon (though it’s hard to get a commitment from those people more precise than “soon”).

Whilst wandering around that hot and humid morning, I also stumpled across the delightful creatures featured in the galleries below: not tiger lilies, but leopard flowers. The leopard flower, as it turns out, is not a lily but is an iris officially known as Iris domestica — despite being also dubiously known as blackberry lily or leopard lily (and is distinct from a Lilium leopard lily, which looks a lot like a tiger lily). Ok, uh… no wonder it can be so difficult to keep plant names straight, when people do such things as randomly calling irises lilies. So substantial might be lily/iris confusion that Wikipedia has a separate page listing plants commonly called lilies that are, in real life, not lilies. See List of plants known as lily — where you might learn (at least, I did) that, among others, the plants and flowers colloquially referred to as “day lilies” are not even lilies… because they aren’t members of the Lilium genus. WTF!

Ah, well, I guess I got it sorted out: the plant originally known as “Pardanthus chinensis” was later given the botanical name “Belamcanda chinensis” — by which is was known for decades and decades — until its DNA was analyzed, its iris roots (haha!) confirmed, and it was slipped from its place as the single flower in a genus to being yet another Iridaceae. This is quite interesting, when you think about it, since — despite having leaves that resemble iris leaves once you know it’s an iris — it has a flower with few if any visible characteristics we would typically associate with irises. Plants are a hoot!


Thanks for taking a look!

Bearded Iris Motley Mix (2 of 2)

From “Fleur-de-Lis” by Walter Stager in Tall Bearded Iris (Fleur-de-lis): A Flower of Song by Walter Stager:

Blue of the skies,
Pink of sunrise,
Red of the sunset-glow,
Purple so bold,
Yellow of gold,
White of the driven snow;
Solid and dashed,
Veined and splashed,
Mottled and reticulated,
Suffused, o’erlaid,
Bordered and rayed —
All colors and shades collated.

From “Iris” by Blanche Marie Louise Oelrichs (writing as “Michael Strange”) in Tall Bearded Iris (Fleur-de-lis): A Flower of Song by Walter Stager:

Iris, pallid blue, gold veined,
And as if coloured from dawn chills,
Or from the yellow-fingered touching
Of curious starlight…
Purple Iris,
Streaked with amethystine memories of the night,
Health-glossed and firm are those ripe wings
Of Oriental butterflies….


This is the second post featuring the last of my iris photos for 2022. The previous post is Bearded Iris Motley Mix (1 of 2), and you can click here to view all of my posts containing photos of irises.

Thanks for taking a look!

Bearded Iris Motley Mix (1 of 2)

From “Intermediate Bearded Irises” in A Guide to Bearded Irises: Cultivating the Rainbow for Beginners and Enthusiasts by Kelly Norris:

“The [intermediate bearded iris] class is home to a motley crew of bearded irises of mixed parentage, a horticultural melting pot that will likely boil over in the coming years as the iris world finds new ways to organize its rich diversity — good news for gardeners who always need more. Until then, its diversity of flower shape and size runs the gamut….The attitude of most iris lovers who love beautiful flowers — the more the merrier. Tolerance is a wonderful thing in the garden.”


Iris Season is coming to a close here in the southeast, and this post and the next one will feature the last of my iris photos for 2022. Unless I find more, in which case there will be more.

Soon I’ll go hunting for early summer flowers — lilies, hydrangeas, hibiscus, and lantana for example — and I added some new lilies and a pair of hibiscus to my own garden this year, mainly so I could take their pictures. I had a potted pair of yellow lilies last year — see Epic Lilies (1 of 3) — one of which came back (so got photographed but is in Post-Processing at the moment) and one of which got dug up by satanic squirrels and didn’t survive the winter. While I couldn’t find a matching yellow lily to replace it, I did find one called Summer Sky which has huge flowers in fabulous shades of red and deep pink that is just starting to bloom. The two hibiscus will be a surprise; they both have a couple of dozen unopened flower buds, but it was tagged at the garden center as a “generic hibiscus” so I don’t even know what color the flowers will be. Not that it matters!

But I’m getting ahead of myself… here are the irises:

Thanks for taking a look!

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