Post image for Yellow Flag Iris – Iris Pseudacorus

Yellow Flag Iris – Iris Pseudacorus

June 3, 2011

According to legend, the first person to wear the iris as a heraldic device was Clovis, who became king of the Franks in the late 5th century. He drove the Romans out of northern Gaul, converted to Christianity, and changed the three toads on his banner for three yellow irises. Six centuries later, the iris was adopted by Louis VII in the fleur-de-lys which he wore in his crusade against the Saracens—‘lys’ is a corruption of ‘Louis’.

Yellow Flag Iris

My painting of the yellow flag iris

One of the legends attached to Clovis’s conversion tells of his promise to his wife Clothilde, that if he won his battle against the Goths, he would convert to her religion, Catholicism. In the course of the battle, the outcome was becoming doubtful and he needed to cross a river to surprise the enemy from behind. He saw a colony of yellow irises in the river, indicating that the waters were shallow at that point. His army crossed and won the battle. Clovis converted to Catholicism. He abandoned the emblem on his coat of arms and adopted the yellow irises as his new emblem. Some historians dismiss this legend and put forward the theory that the iris was a design development originating from the shape of the toads on the original coat of arms.

The word iris is Greek for ‘rainbow’, and the plants are grown in gardens for their showy flowers in various shades of yellow, violet, blue and white. Another name for the yellow flag iris is the sword flag, as its leaves are sharp-edged and can cut if handed carelessly. The plant is mainly pollinated by bees, which crawl inside the flowers to reach the nectar at the base of the petals. After pollination, the petals fall off to reveal a large, green capsule. The capsule stalk begins to bend, and the capsule eventually splits to reveal a mass of yellowish-brown seeds.

By the 19th century, the yellow flag was a source of inspiration to the English poets, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote in his journals of ‘Camps of yellow flag flowers blowing in the wind, which curled over the grey sashes of the long leaves.’

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