A Visit from the Widow

A couple of weeks ago, iris-type leaves emerged in the lean-to-garden and produced a bud. No plant label, which is not too unusual, but the Head Gardener had no recollection of planting iris tubers in this particular spot. Eventually the identity of the mystery plant as revealed as the flower opened. It is a plant I’ve always known as Hermodactylus tuberosum – the Snake’s Head or Widow Iris. Recent taxonomic work has returned it to its original genus of Iris, although it is a little atypical with quadrangular leaves and no vexillum tepals. However, I think this can be overlooked as the colours and texture of the flowers are stunning.

It is a plant with a long history, it was known to the 17th century apothecaries, herbalists and botanists. I’m not sure that I agree with John Gerard’s description of the flowers as being “goose-turd green” and the described medicinal properties do not inspire confidence:
They purge flegm, especially from the joynts, therefore are good for gouts, and other disease of the joynts. Their vices [side-effects] are corrected with long pepper, ginger, cinnamon or mastich: I would not have unskilful people to busy with purges.” Culpeper, Nicholas. (1653). The London Dispensatory.

It may may have disappeared from the Pharmacopoeia, but it has great merit as a garden plant. Always one of my favourites, I have struggled to get it to flower on an annual basis. For ages it sat in a pot, producing a few leggy leaves and no flowers, and was forgotten. However, I have no idea how it migrated to its new home. It is a Mediterranean species, ranging from southeast France to North Africa and Israel, growng in shallow rocky, well-drained soils where the dormant tubers are baked by the summer sun. A Hebridean rock garden is absolutely perfect, apart from the lack of hot summer sun, but clearly it can persuaded to flower if grown in under-cover. Unfortunately it comes into growth early in the year, which probably explains why it has become so elongated. Perhaps if we can get it to establish, a later move into the greenhouse with the South African bulbs where there is more light might resolve this problem. Or I could just buy some more tubers!

11 thoughts on “A Visit from the Widow”

  1. This flower ticks all the boxes for me, colour, structure and texture. I don’t think I can take any credit for getting it to flower!

  2. Fabulous Christine, a plant I have loved and lost. Goose-turd green indeed, and purging ‘flegm’. Clearly Gerard was a man with no poetry in his soul. And he was a plagiarist to boot.

  3. Lovely. I’m a sucker for anything black. And combined with chartreuse (an infinitely better description than goose turd), perfection!

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