Monday, July 5, 2021


By Sylvain Ruaud 

The Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo is better known for his "Concierto de Aranjuez" than for his symphonic poem "Per la flor del lliri blau", which translates from Catalan to English as "For the flower of the blue lily", yet it is this one that we are going to discuss today. It is based on a dark medieval legend from the Valencia region in southeastern Spain, which tells how the three sons of a dying king go in search of the blue lily whose magical powers could save their father. It is the youngest of the three who discovers the famous flower, but he is killed by his brothers who want to keep for themselves the glory of having brought back the miraculous remedy. I don't believe that there is a blue lily. But the legend probably makes the same confusion as the one which, in many countries, assimilates the lily — the iris. The legendary blue lily must therefore have been an iris.

But which iris could it be? I have found several species of blue iris growing spontaneously or that can grow in Spain. This chronicle will be the opportunity to get to know these species a little.

Let's start by talking about the Algerian iris, I. unguicularis (Poiret 1785). It is probably the most known species because it is the most common. It is found spontaneously in Spain where it finds the mild climate that suits it and allows it to develop its blue flowers, fragrant, which brighten up our gardens in winter. But is this the species that the three brothers of the legend went to look for? Probably not, because it is not a rare species. It is therefore not surrounded by the mystery that rarity confers.

Could it be the case of I. lutescens (Lambert 1789)? It is a species of the pumila family, the dwarf irises which are at the base of our hybrid SDB, which produces flowers with largely developed petals above small and curved sepals. It exists in several colors, among them blue, but it is not its main color since when we speak about I. lutescens we see rather yellow flowers. Certainly this species is present in Spain, but it is not the one I bet.

One could think of I. iberica var. elegantissima (Fedorov/Takhtadjian 1915)? Here is a species whose name immediately makes one think of a Spanish plant, but, even if it is a superb plant, with the undeniable class proper to the iris oncocyclus and the strangeness which can lead to the legend, it is not possible that this is the one that the three brothers were looking for. Indeed this very small plant, with rather large and always brightly colored flowers, is only very rarely in shades of blue while exists mainly in shades of white and brown, with styles curiously lying on the sepals, black, and which give it a vague air of baboon snout. Unfortunately, in spite of its botanical name, this species does not grow in Spain since it is native to Central Asia and that it meets only in this region, thus very far from Valencia. (2)

Since it cannot be the previous one, can we then imagine that it is Iris Xiphium vulgare (Linné 1753), the base of the family of Xiphium, known normally under the name of iris of Spain. This is a plant of good size (60 cm) that grows in dry soils that are found among others around Valencia and is distinguished by flowers often blue and marked with a yellow signal. Have we found the "lliri blau" that inspired Joaquin Rodrigo? It is unlikely. It is not a rare plant, it is rather showy, considering its size, and it is not necessarily that blue...

The blue is more precisely the color of another Xiphium, the famous Iris X. latifolium (P. Miller 1768), the bulbous iris of the Pyrenees, which was transported to Great Britain and developed so well there that it is commonly called the Iris of England. But this iris likes humid and acidic mountain meadows. It is thus very unlikely that it was one day present in the area of Valencia.

Would the Valencian legend be only a legend? Is there no blue iris near the Mediterranean Sea, in the South of Spain? It would be to forget Juno planifolia (Ascherson/Graeber 1906) (see photo)(1). It is a very small plant (not more than ten centimeters) whose flowers bloom at the end of winter, it is called in Spain the Christmas iris. They are of a soft blue, lilac, marked with brighter blue on the sepals and finely veined of yellow. They are hidden under the foliage and are then signaled especially by their delicate perfume. From there to think that they could well be these blue lilies of which the legend speaks? 

The three brothers who wanted to save their father must have discovered, somewhere above Valencia, this little marvel with its exceptional perfume. But filial love was not the main motivation of the two elders. They committed the irreparable to make a selfish and derisory profit from the discovery of their youngest son.

Today, when one loves both irises and music, one can enjoy both Juno planifolia and "Per la flor del lliri blau", which is an advantage that the three brothers of the legend did not have.

(1) The photographer, Robert F. Hamilton, is a specialist in botanical irises and lives in Tasmania. 

(2)  I. iberica was named after a people who once inhabited the foothills of the Caucasus, in present-day Georgia.

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