Irises, Rainbows and Sore Thumbs

A Texas spring is a temperamental thing, blowing hot and cold around our alternately under- and over-protected ears, coaxing buds into boldly bursting on the scene only to have to cower at its fickle fierceness, and then beckoning us to thrust our hands into the warm earth to assist in its rebirth, only to have those hands slapped by the sting of an April frost.

How spring’s early bloomers survive is a mystery to me.  

Irises, although typically a late spring flower, seem to jump the Texas gun each year, thumbing their noses at the capriciousness of spring. These foolhardy perennials have wormed their way into even the laziest of gardener’s beds worldwide, known for their vibrant blooms and easygoing nature. Irises were used historically for medicinal purposes, are second only to the rose as an object of artists’ interests, and have lent their shape to the French monarchs’ symbol of power known as the Fleur de Lys.

The popularity of irises is surpassed only by their diversity.

Taking its name from the Greek word for rainbow, the iris family includes nearly 300 species.  Thousands and thousands of hybrids have sprung just from the Bearded Iris, the most popular member of the family.

A grand stand of irises attests to the tenacity of an established congregation of Methodists who are hanging on in a fading neighborhood, and on occasion these flowers have provided the backdrop for Easter’s sunrise service. Most irises are purple, a website of all things iris declares, and this church’s garden does nothing to refute this claim of popularity, except for the occasional sprinkle of yellow and white.

I was driving by on a blustery spring day, admiring the brilliant blooms when one in particular caught my eye – a gawky, reddish flower craning its neck above the crowd and out of step with the circular arrangement. Rather than appreciating the diversity, I was offended by the way that misfit flower had spoiled the display’s symmetry and order. Variety is appealing – when it is planned and blended just the way I like it.  

Most of our language for standing out in a crowd doesn’t produce appealing images: fish out of water, sticking out like a sore thumb, or a fly on a wedding cake. No wonder our first thoughts are of disdain when we see something – or someone – different.

The vast array of species of the iris, along with the rainbow of colors in which the species and their hybrids present themselves, should be a vivid reminder of the beauty of diversity.

Iris was the Greek goddess of the rainbow and the messenger of the Olympian gods, taking her name from both the Greek word iris (rainbow) and eiris (messenger).

The deep red iris had a message for me when I was finally ready to listen: There is beauty in diversity, especially the unplanned variety. Every piece of the rainbow is equally valuable and delightful, but there is nothing as spectacular as its fullness.

Janet MendenhallComment