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Harlequin blue flag (Iris versicolor), our floral emblem

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Harlequin blue flag (Iris versicolor).
Photo: Jardin botanique de Montréal (Roméo Meloche)  

Looking for a lovely lady for your garden? 

This plant has loads of charm and doesn’t hide it. Bees find it attractive too, and are frequent visitors. It is just as beautiful as the other members of its family, and is becoming more popular all the time.

It is also the official floral emblem of Québec.

So it’s worth getting to know and to recognize!

Biological details

Harlequin Blue flag (Iris versicolor L.) is a superb rhizomatous perennial that grows in damp sites (ditches, swamps, riverbanks, edges of peat bogs, etc.). In Canada it can be found from Manitoba to Newfoundland. It also grows in a number of eastern US states. It forms dense colonies and its violet-blue flowers put on a show in June-July that we love to see, year after year.

Its long, stiff, erect leaves are sword shaped. From their base rises the stem bearing several flowers, each measuring 5 to 7 cm.

Its unusual flower parts give it an intriguing personality. The three sepals are the most colourful parts. They are violet marbled with white, yellow and green and heavily veined with dark purple. Narrow and horizontal at the base, they abruptly widen out into an elegantly arched triangular section. The three violet petals, only half as long as the sepals, are erect and alternate with the sepals. The reproductive parts are also rather odd. The style of the pistil is divided into three petal-like branches that arch over the narrow part of the sepals. The wide, bilabial end is erect. At its base is the stigma that receives the pollen. This position between each of the styles and the sepals forms a tunnel leading to the stamens and hence to the nectar.

Of course nectar attracts insects – in this case, bees. The veins on the sepals are thought to lead them toward the nectar they are seeking. A bee enters the tunnel and rubs up against the stamen loaded with pollen as it searches for food. As it backs out of the tunnel, the pollen it has picked up is normally not rubbed off on the outward-facing stigmatic lobe. When the bee enters the tunnel of another blue flag, the pollen sticks to that plant’s stigmatic lobe, and pollination occurs. This process improves the chances of cross-pollination and leads to greater genetic variety.

A controversial floral emblem

As ridiculous as it might seem, until recently we were the only Canadian province without a native plant as its floral emblem. An absurd mix-up led to our official floral emblem being the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum L.), which grows naturally in the eastern Mediterranean!

Ethnobiologist Jacques Rousseau, who succeeded Marie-Victorin as head of the Montréal Botanical Garden, declared that the choice of the Madonna lily was as ridiculous as if we had picked the camel as Quebec’s animal emblem!

The stylized flower on the Quebec flag is certainly not a lily. It is probably styled after the yellow flag (Iris pseudacorus L.) found in abundance along the banks of the Lys river in Belgium – where it was likely known as the fleur dela Lys and contracted to fleur de lys. The fleur de lys, or lis, adorned the royal coat of arms of France. Perhaps the symbol on our flag should be described as a fleur d’iris instead of a fleur de lis!

The unfortunate thing for our blue flag, the unofficial emblem of the province up until 1999, is that it actually took a piece of legislation to make it official. Ever since Bill 38 (now known as E-5) was adopted by the National Assembly on January 23, 1963, tremendous pressure had been exerted on the Quebec government to correct this mistake. When Montréal hosted the Floralies internationales in 1980, Pierre Bourque, the Montréal Botanical Garden’s Director at the time, chose the blue flag as the symbol of this exceptional horticultural event.

The Quebec government finally adopted Bill 49 (which became An Act respecting the flag and emblems of Québec) unanimously in the fall of 1999 (adopted on October 28 and received royal sanction on November 5, 1999), making the blue flag its official emblem.

Now it is up to us, as botanist Gisèle Lamoureux of Fleurbec says, to take care of this plant and protect it in its habitat. This means it mustn’t be dug up and sold! We have to encourage growers to produce it from seeds, as this can be done easily and quickly.

We can also encourage Quebeckers to look for hybrids of the versicolor and ensata species at nurseries, sold as Iris x versata, which are particularly well suited to home gardens.

Based on an article by Édith Morin in Quatre-Temps magazine, Vol. 16, No.4, and an article by Gisèle Lamoureux in FloraQuebeca magazine, Vol. 5, No.1.

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