Snake's-head or Widow Iris

"I burn no incense, hang no wreath,
On this, thine early tomb:
Such cannot cheer the place of death,
But only mock its gloom."

-Edward Coate Pinkney


Hermodactylus tuberosa (formerly Iris tuberosa) is an heirloom geophyte, in garden cultivation since 1597. We planted fifty of the small elongated tuberous bulbs in a morning-sun garden that does not get much water.

In our garden, by late January & in February the bulbs have sent up slender grass to ten or twelve inches. It waits some while to bloom. The flowers are shorter than the grass, to eight inches; but the grass is extremely thin, so the rush-like grass does not greatly hides the blossoms.

By early March in our garden, but in April or May in cooler climates, this dwarf produces its fragrant flowers. The classic herbalist John Gerard described the color of these blossoms as "goose-turd green," a most disharmonious description for such a pretty flower. They would be better called transluscent olive sometimes faded to nearly yellow, with velvety brown to black tips/falls.

The dour color has lent it the common name Widow Iris, Black Iris, or Velvet Flower-de-Luce, though Snake's-head or Snakeshead Iris has become most commonly used, alluding to its pointed buds that supposedly look like snaky heads with open mouths.

This native of the Mediterranean needs full sun to partial shade in a well drained sandy-mixed soil. They can naturalize in grass, but are far better in the rockgarden, also serving well for container-gardening.

The genus name Hermodactylus means "Finger of Hermes," because the tuberous bulb looks like a gnarly pinky-finger. When taxonomists came to the agreement that this Iris was not really in the Iris genus, it was quite clever to give it a new scientific name after Hermes, for Hermes was the Messenger of the Gods, as was Iris, Mother of Rainbows, a messenger goddess.

Snake's-head Iris was formerly valued as a cathartic & for other medicinal properties, but is no longer much regarded by herbalists.


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