The tall bearded iris has been the native flower of Tuscany for millenia and the formal Floral Symbol of Florence for 900 years (even though it is sometimes inaccurately referred to as the Fleur-de-lis).
Possibly it arrived in Tuscany with Etruscans whose monuments often portrayed the iris. It grew wild throughout the valleys of the Arno flowering from late April to end May. The iris is, for afficionados, the most elegant and beautiful flower. Visitors to Florence can see the Florence Iris Garden throughout May and admire the thousands of blooms.
Most visitors to and even natives from Florence have Piazzale Michelangelo on their itinerary. Standing below the bronze replica of David that has graced this square for 150 years, people throng to view the city and the ‘dome’, the Arno and its bridges. To the right at the end of the crescent is an unassuming gate and plaque leading to the Florence iris garden.
Here, you wander around the stone paths rolling down and around the hill among the olive trees, and experience ‘a wonderful symphony of colour’- the virtually complete spectrum from deep purples to pure white. The only colour not quite replicated is the red of Florence, a colour that has so far eluded the breeders. This red flower however, did not arise from nature, but from politics. Originally the Standard of Florence had been the natural white iris (iris alba fiorentina) until one of the many coups in 1266 when the Guelfs gained control and reversed the colours.
With the planting of this world famous iris garden 60 years ago, the project of the Italian Iris Society to collect the most beautiful irises created by hybridisation began. Each year in mid-May there is the International Iris Competition where new varieties from around the world are judged.
The ambition of every hybridiser is to win this competition, and when I was assembling my iris garden south of Canberra in Australia, the Grosvenor family, from whom most varieties of the many of hundreds of colours and forms were sourced, were most proud of their achievements in Florence iris competition.
The depth, subtlety and brilliance of iris colours astound the viewer. On an early spring morning I could thrill to the tall large black iris that dripped its colour with each bead of dew. The Florence iris competition has a special prize reflecting the desire to replicate the red of Florence and being a reminder of the origin of the tall bearded iris.
In the Florence iris garden you will also find many other varieties of iris from around the world including Japanese water irises. For more information and to find out how you can commence your own magnificent iris garden, visit: www.irisfirenze.it.