From the Garden: Of iris and marigold

Reticulate iris

Reticulate iris

It is at this time of year that nature holds its breath.

Too soon to bid the winter storms farewell and yet we are surrounded by the harbingers of spring.  Jonquils dance their breezy ballet and crocus huddle close to the still cold ground.  This week the first of the reticulate Iris (Iris reticulata) have come to bloom.  This tiny denizen of the Anatolian plain in faraway Turkey is so named from the netted husk that encloses the bulb.  As its nativity is in an arid region of the world, the bulb must remain relatively dry through the summer months to set its bloom.  It has a remarkably sweet fragrance but you must stoop low to delight in it.

We took the potted marigolds (Calendula officinalis) from the frame as the weather has warmed and their bright yellow flowers are a welcome addition.  This is the marigold of Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale “that goes to bed wi’ th’ sun, And with him rises weeping.”

It has long been assumed that it was the flower favored by the blessed Virgin and hence its name but it appears that marigold originated not with the Calendula genus but rather as an adaption of the Anglo-Saxon merso-meargealla, for what is now known as the Marsh Marigold (Caltha pulustris).

Pot marigold

Pot marigold

However, the plant most commonly known by this appellation today is actually a New World plant, brought back from Mexico by the Spanish and known in England as the French marigold (Tagetes patula).

Our plant is often distinguished from the crowd as the Pot Marigold in allusion to its use by the poorer sort as a saffron substitute.  It species name, officinalis, designates it as a plant of some medicinal value.  Among its many uses Culpeper recommends, “A plaister made with the dry flowers in powder, hog’s-grease, turpentine, and rosin, applied to the breast, strengthens and succours the heart infinitely in fevers, whether pestilential or not.” Only the common deep orange-flowered variety is of medicinal value.


  1. says

    Here, at the headwaters of the Rappahannock river, the Reticulate iris are still tucked under – although the snow drops and winter aconites have been blooming (when sunny and not under snow) for about 3 weeks providing the honey bees with some scant pollen on warm days – the maples have not bloomed yet so there is very little forage for the bees.
    I did not know where “pot” in Pot marigold came from: it makes sense. I like to use the bright petals in salad to lighten up the plate and bright a smile to guests.

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