So we’ve had these irises for fifteen years. One would think that I’d have taken note before now.
But one would be wrong.
It is a fact universally acknowledged that plants go through a relatively straight-forward growth cycle:
- Spring comes and our little friends burst through the earth and shoot skyward.
- The bud, whether miniscule or massive, swells and explodes into color, luring in pollinators and treating the eyes of we the gardeners.
- The bees and birds and the mystifying hummingbird moth come along and paint pollen in their wake, impregnating all those lovely flowers along the way.
- The flowers die off, shedding their spent petals and leaving their naked ovaries to swell into seed pods of whatever girth and magnificence is accorded their species.
- Eventually, the seed pod bursts as well, scattering future generations to the earth.
- The plant dies off for the winter, the seeds settle in for the long winter’s nap, and the whole thing begins again in the spring.
Or, the abbreviated version:
- Green growth
- Flower die off and drop
- Seed development and scattering
- Death and rebirth
Yes, I know there is more. There’s a lot more. Of course there is. I’m not a botanical idiot.
In the case of my irises, they aren’t beholden to that seeding process much at all, as their rhizomes grow into entangled mats under the earth and resurrect themselves in spring regardless of their summertime seeding successes. But the seeding is still how they send babies forth into the wider world, in the absence of any gardener that will split up their rhizomal mass and spread them out a bit, maybe into the next county. The seeding is still their God-given hope for future travels.
OK, where the heck is she going with this?
I know, I ramble. Apologies. Allow me to explain…
You see, this guy came to stay with Grandma and Grandpa for a few days this week:
And the young princeling and I were out admiring Aunt Emily’s Gardens one day…
And while we were hanging out with the blooms, Grandma noticed the thing that she’d never noticed before…
Do you see all the little fists?
It seems that when my irises die off, they do not shed their blooms. They don’t drop their petals. They don’t let go of a’one of ’em. They very neatly curl them back in and twist them up and take them back into themselves.
What is that?
Here are some more. Look closely. It’s just wild.
Every color seems to do it a little differently. The yellow ones pull in and then twist more than anything else:
The purple and white bunch up more willy-nilly-like:
And the wine and cheese guys, they are the most insistent in their craft, taking on many shapes, but unable to rest until they’ve done the job: They seem to prefer the most symmetrical full pull-in:
I can’t fathom what’s really going on here, but it is clear that the petals of the iris are not just for glitz and glamour and then a speedy disposal. Death, in the iris, is embraced, and even the process of dying is part of that embrace. To be sure, these spent heads will eventually hit the dirt, but something very important to the iris happens first.
Why does this big, beautiful bloom, as it dies, greedily clutch all that it was back into itself? Food? Fertilizer? Just a warm embrace? Do the petals play a crucial role in the increment of the seed? Do they turn into the soup that will turn into the very shellac that covers each baby? I don’t know, but the very fact that the iris insists upon this reabsorption makes one think.
A flower is always a story of life and death. It is a beauty that flashes, and then is gone, its purpose served. Until now, the lesson there, for me, has always been about not hanging onto those dead blooms. They’re done. Let them go. There are myriad reasons that we cling to the dead and the spent, many of them innocent enough, yet still leaving us clinging to a bunch of useless scratchy stuff, sometimes bales and bales of it.
The oaks in my backyard are fighting the good fight against the oak wilt that has been ravaging them for the same fifteen years that our irises have adorned our house. They’ve survived thus far, beating the odds, but these past two years those oaks have been unable to let go of their spent leaves. Oaks are notorious for hanging on, often right on through the winter, but eventually, when the new growth comes each spring, the old does fall away.
Not so with our friendly backyard oaks these two years though. They can’t give them up, those long-gone leaves. And the trees are truly beginning to suffer for the clinging. Their buds are blocked, their growth centers are forced to adapt, and all the year’s new life has more competition for light and space than it can rightly handle. I fear that if our acorn-meisters don’t release the clutches soon, it may spell their ends.
You know what I’m talking about. We are so like these wilt-infested oaks sometimes, clinging no matter how it weighs us down, unwilling to let go no matter how sick it makes us. If we don’t loosen our cramped fists, it will spell our ends as well.
That has been the lesson of the flower for me (and the wilted oak). Let it go. Seasons come, and seasons go, and we need to allow those seasons their own work in their own time. Eventually, we need to let the death go to make room for the new life.
But the iris outside my window urges another lesson. She is not contradictory, just judicious. She reminds us that even that healthy lesson she and her sistren have taught us, to let go what no longer serves, even these good, good lessons are not black and white. Nothing is.
Today’s lesson, the lesson of the irises, is that death has something for us as well. It is that we are all too often ready to drop the weight as soon as it has served the purpose that we have assigned it, and we are none too excited to exercise the patience and humility needed to acknowledge that there might just be more. We might be missing out on the best bit when we drop the detritus at the earliest possible moment.
It is good to let go. Yes, it is. But there is also worth in the gentle reabsorbing of the whole mess, back into ourselves, to die where it was born. The releasing time will come, for sure, but maybe, just maybe, there is a little more life left in those dying blooms.
And there’s our challenge. Letting go, but not before we’re done. Integrating all of it, even the dying, into the core of who we are, composting it within ourselves, and only then, when the life is truly gone, dropping the weight.
Good luck, folks. I thought the original lesson of the flowers was a rough one. The irises really upped the game.
What about the grandboy?!?
Oh, calm down. He had a fine time. As did the grandparents.
And what of the eye?!?
Take a look back at the slideshow above. You’ll note that I no longer have a golf ball for an eye.
Thank the Lord.
If you need me, I’ll be staring at my flowers (with both eyes),
What a lovely introspective post. We had irises for years but to be perfectly honest I never paid attention what happened to the spent blooms. And that’s one handsome little man you’ve got there. Cheeks et al.
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I know, right? Right under my nose! (The blooms and the boy!)
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I love irises! My dad always had them in our yard when we were growing up. I have seen those withered up blooms but never gave it much thought. I had never looked closely enough to notice they were curled up into themselves. Adorable grand baby by the way! 😀
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Thanks! He’s a gem! And yes, I can’t believe I hadn’t noticed before now! They’re so showy and beautiful you don’t even catch their spectacular death.
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