Today, June 24th, is Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, honoring Saint John the Baptist, the patron saint of French Canadians. It’s a public holiday in the province of Quebec and also widely celebrated throughout Canada and in many parts of the United States, wherever there are local French Canadian populations. And there is a plant associated with the holiday, the blue flag iris (Iris versicolor), now promoted as a symbol of the province and French Canadians everywhere … but how the blue flag became the floral emblem of Quebec is quite a story!
Pick an Emblem, Any Emblem!
In 1948, the Government of Canada asked the provinces to choose a floral emblem. Although the blue flag iris had long been considered the symbol of French Canadians, the Quebec government instead chose the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) as the floral emblem to reflect the flower seen on the Quebec flag, chosen the same year. The flag was composed of a white cross on a blue background with a white fleur-de-lis in each corner. Since “lis” is French for lily, the authorities assumed that the fleur-de-lis was a lily flower. But they were wrong.
The fleur-de-lis symbol actually represents a heraldic iris. This is easily seen by the symbol’s shape: drooping sepals (called falls) and upright petals (standards), nothing like the trumpet shape of lilies known in Europe at the time. There are many theories as to why the symbol become known as a fleur-de-lis rather than a fleur-d’iris. One is that Louis VII, King of the Franks from 1137 to 1180, used the symbol prominently on his flag, clothing and shield, leading to it being called the “flor de Lois” (as it was pronounced at the time), a term which later evolved into fleur-de-lis.
But whatever the true reason, authorities on heraldic symbols agree that the original fleur-de-lis was the yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus), clearly hinted at by the original golden color of the heraldic fleur-de-lis.
It is interesting to note that while the French forgot the origin of the name over time, to the English, it was always clear that the fleur-de-lis was an iris. That’s why irises that resemble the fleur-de-lis are called flag irises: they’re the flower seen on the flags borne by the French!
At the time of colonization of French Canada, the golden heraldic iris on an azure-blue background was the symbol of French royalty and was thus carried everywhere in America where the French settled. That’s why it is found on the coat of arms of such US cities as Detroit, St. Louis and New Orleans. When the Quebec flag, with its four fleur-de-lis, was created in 1948, it was said that the white fleur-de-lis of our flag represented not the French monarchy, but the Virgin Mary, a telling transposition of historic fact in the then very Roman Catholic province.
As soon as the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) was chosen as Quebec’s floral emblem (thus in 1948), the choice was immediately decried by botanists and gardeners. After all, not only was the flower on the flag an iris rather than a lily, but the Madonna lily was native to the Mediterranean, not to Quebec. Plus, it is only hardy to zone 6, meaning the plant couldn’t even be grown successfully in the province (hardiness zones 0 through 5) without taking special precautions.
Botanist Jacques Rousseau pointedly stated that choosing Lilium candidum as the floral emblem for Quebec was as illogical as would be choosing the camel as the province’s animal emblem!
After years of delays, the Quebec government finally gave into public and botanical pressure in 1999 and named a new floral emblem: the blue flag iris (Iris versicolor), usually simply called blue flag.
This iris is native to Quebec as well of much of Northeastern North America and grows readily almost everywhere in the province. It even blooms on Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day … most years. (It will actually bloom anywhere from May to July, depending on the local climate.)
The blue flag is of variable height (2 to 4 feet/60 to 120 cm), although 3 feet/90 cm is typical in most situations. Its narrow, linear leaves grow in tufts, reminiscent of an ornamental grass. It usually comes in shades of blue, purple or violet, although it is quite variable, as the botanical name suggests (versicolor means “changeable color”). The darker shade is always marked with yellow and white. In England, where this North American plant is particularly popular, hybridizers have developed a wide range of colors, including reds, yellows, whites, and pinks as well as varieties with double flowers.
The blue flag attracts butterflies and hummingbirds to the garden and has a long history of use as a medicinal plant. However, its rhizomes are poisonous and its use is now rarely recommended.
Easy to Grow
In nature, the blue flag is found in moist to wet or flooded soils, usually along rivers and lakes or in marshes or ditches. It therefore makes an excellent choice as a marginal plant for water gardens, but, although it is normally semi-aquatic in the wild, it is surprisingly tolerant of ordinary garden conditions. In fact, it can readily be grown in a typical flower bed: just make sure to water it during periods of drought.
The blue flag prefers full sun but will tolerate partial shade, and seems indifferent to soil quality, growing perfectly well in sandy, clay or loam soils, as well as in acidic and alkaline conditions. It is a very long-lived plant and can be left to grow on its own for 50 years or more. It is extremely adaptable to varied temperatures and will grow in hardiness zones 2 to 9.
The blue flag is usually multiplied by division, in autumn or early spring. You can also grow it from seeds, but only after a prolonged cold treatment. Either sow them outdoors in the fall so they can germinate naturally in the spring or sow them indoors in pots and refrigerate for 120 days. Then expose the pots to light and heat and the seeds should germinate readily.
The blue flag is still not a common iris in garden centers, although those specializing in native North American plants probably carry it. Or try a water garden specialist. And there are plenty of mail order sources on the Internet.
Good luck with your blue flag iris and have a pleasant Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day!