From peaks to plains: the wild iris

Dr. Joanne Stolen
Special to the Daily
Special to the Daily/Joanne Stolen

Walking along the path in Breckenridge that goes from Park Avenue north to the Riverwalk Center we saw an abundance of wild irises, so I decided to find out more about this flower.

The scientific name is iris missouriensis. Iris was the Greek goddess of the rainbow and missouriensis refers to the river. The species was named by Thomas Nuttall in 1834 from a specimen collected “towards the sources of the Missouri.” It is also known as blue flag iris.

The wild iris is found in Western North America. Its distribution is varied; it grows at high elevations in mountains and alpine meadows and all the way down to sea level in coastal hills. It is frequently found in foothills, montane, subalpine environments, wetlands and meadows, in late spring or early summer.

The wild iris is one of the first wildflowers to bloom in spring, most often found in extensive patches in moist meadows from the foothills to the mountains, but it also grows solitary in open moist woods. It is common to find irises blooming in dry meadows in June which were moist from snowmelt in April and early May.

It is the most drought-tolerant of our native irises, only needing moisture in the spring. The only climates not hospitable to wild iris are the hot deserts and the wetlands on the southern coast of Florida.

This iris resembles a perfectly shaped miniature domesticated iris. Wild iris typically has leaves and flower stalk about a foot tall, but it can grow to 2 feet tall. Flowers are about 3 inches in diameter.

Iris color variations exist, but in this region the color is mainly shades of blue/purple with a rare white flower. The spreading outer parts of the flower are deeply veined dark purple with yellow-white.

The leaves arise from shallowly rooted, large, branching rhizomes (bulbous roots) forming clumps. The duration of flowering is determined by the amount of late spring snow and early summer rain.

It is a perennial, widely spreading from a thick mass of roots. Its “fruits” are capsules, 2 inches long, with three compartments containing dark brown seeds.

Wild iris is easy to transplant. A good time to do so is when the when the rhizomes begin to crowd each other. This may happen every three years, especially if plants have been healthy and spreading during that time.

Before transplanting, prepare the soil by making sure there is proper drainage and till the ground at least 4 inches deep. You can also harvest the seed from the flower.

Most wild iris plants prefer full sun, but some will grow in shade. Shady conditions will often limit the blooming period, causing the flower to mature more slowly.

The iris flower is of interest as an example of the relation between flowering plants and pollinating insects. The shape of the flower and the position of the pollen-receiving surfaces on the outer petals form a landing-stage for a flying insect. When probing for nectar, an insect will have pollen attached to it from one flower. When entering a second, it deposits the pollen. Hummingbirds are also attracted to the wild blue iris.

This plant can be weedy or invasive. It is distasteful to livestock and heavy growths of the plant are a nuisance in pasture land. Heavy grazing in an area promotes the growth of this hardy iris. Plants can cause skin irritations and allergies in some people.

There are some interesting uses of this plant by native tribes and herbalists. The roasted seed is a coffee substitute.

A paste of the ripe seeds has been used as a dressing on burns.

An arrow poison was made from the ground-up roots.

Several native North American Indian tribes used it to treat skin problems. An infusion of the root has been used in the treatment of kidney and bladder complaints and stomach aches.

The pulped root is placed in the tooth cavity or on the gum in order to bring relief from toothache.

A poultice of the mashed roots has been applied to rheumatic joints and also used as a salve on venereal sores.

The fresh roots are toxic and should not be used internally, but a poultice of the raw rhizome is effective against staph sores.

The flower has captured the imaginations of many organizations and establishments. The name is used by a medical education group, Wild Iris Medical Education Inc. There is a Wild Iris Restaurant, a Wild Iris Salon, Wild Iris Mountain Sports, Wild Iris Inn, Wild Iris Bookstore and Wild Iris (domestic violence and sexual assault prevention). There is a book of poetry called “Wild Iris.”

Invasive or not, I always enjoy the beauty of this flower.

Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology at Rutgers University.

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