Plant of the Week

Dwarf Iris (Iris verna L.)

By Wayne Owen

Map of the United States showing states. States are colored green where the species may be found.
Range map of dwarf iris. States are colored green where the species may be found.

Iris verna
Iris verna. Photo by William Needham.

Iris verna is our most diminutive native iris, typically growing to about six inches tall. The violet colored flowers have the typical iris structure, comprised of three downward hanging sepals (called “falls”), and three relatively narrow and upright petals (called flags or banners). The blossoms of dwarf iris are fragrant. This plant flowers in early spring and is usually found in open, dry pine forests. Dwarf iris is most often found in small, often densely packed patches of a few to many plants. Dwarf iris is relatively rare in Arkansas, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.

Dwarf iris is sometimes confused with crested iris (Iris cristata), but is easily distinguished by the presence of prominent fuzzy crests on the sepals (falls) on crested iris. Also, the flower of the crested iris is most commonly a light blue, rather than violet.

Iris is the goddess of the rainbow in Greek mythology. She served as a messenger for the gods in general, but primarily for Hera, the wife and sister of Zeus. She was thus the female counterpart of Hermes (Mercury in Roman mythology). Whenever a rainbow appeared, it was assumed that Iris was bringing a message from Olympus to a mortal or to a god that was on an Earthly mission. Iris also led the souls of dead women to the Elysian Fields (the realm of the honored dead in Greek mythology) which gave rise to the old-world custom of planting irises on the graves of women. Iris was married to Zephyrus, the god of the west wind and, according to some accounts, the mother of Eros, the god of love. There is a metaphorical appeal to the notion of love being a child born of the rainbow and the wind.

There are about 170 species of iris in the world. They are found primarily in northern temperate regions. There are more than thirty species of wild iris in the United States. Native Americans used Iris root as a laxative and emetic. Livestock are sometimes poisoned by eating wild iris.

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