This moisture-loving native wildflower has showy, reddish-brown blooms with drooping petals April through June. With up to six flat-topped flowers on each slender stalk and bright green, sword-like leaves, copper iris rivals its orchid cousins for delicate beauty. Its leaves remain attractive throughout most of the year, disappearing briefly during the summer and growing back at the end of the season to brave the winter cold. The plant grows 2 to 3 feet tall in full or part sun and a range of soils, including clay and loam. Although it’s often spotted forming colonies alongside ponds and streams, Iris fulva readily adapts to domestic gardens with average to moist conditions and even standing water. Wet conditions favor the dispersal of the cork-cloaked seeds, which are able to float to their new homes. The plant is not drought tolerant, and exposed rhizomes should be kept moist during summer and very hot spells. Copper iris is native from Ohio to Georgia and west to Texas, heavily populating the Mississippi Valley. The beautiful iris is declining in the wild due to draining of swamps, dredging operations, and applications of herbicides to ditches. Like other plants that grow in low, wet areas, copper iris filters water of impurities and silt before it runs into creeks and rivers or enters the groundwater system.
The Greek word iris, or “eye of heaven,” is associated with the same-named Greek goddess and with a rainbow’s many colors, of which the 70,000-plus cultivars of irises are said to represent. Fulvus means tawny or reddish yellow in Latin, and the word is often used to describe plants and animals. Hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and moths flock to the fragrant flowers for nectar and pollen, and several species of caterpillars dine on the bright green, gracefully arching foliage. Iris fulva’s blooms lack the characteristic crest, or beard, of some irises, and it’s one of only two species that is predominantly red. All irises, however, are composed of toxic compounds that should not be consumed, which also makes them unpalatable to deer. Because contact with the seeds, leaves, and especially the roots may cause dermatitis, gloves should be donned before handling the plants. Dividing plants every three to four years will increase flowering. Copper iris may be susceptible to the iris fulva mosaic virus, which is transmitted by aphids. Address the problem early with insecticidal soap, and dispose of all diseased plants.
Native habitats include freshwater marshes, swamps, and bottomland forests. It’s also found along the edges and in the shallows of ditches, streams, and ponds. Great plant for rain gardens and moister areas near ponds, streams, or creeks.
Grows 2-3’ tall (occasionally up to 5’) and 1–2’ wide.
Grows in full or part sun.
Prefers rich, clay, or loamy soils that are moist and slightly acidic. Adapts to average to moist soils and standing water.
Each flower has 3-5 sepals that spread widely or arch downward and 3 petals that are narrower than the sepals and either erect or arching downward. Six-sided seed capsules are 2-3” long with 10-20 dark, flat, irregular-shaped seeds.
Blade-like leaves 18-30” tall and about 1” wide emerge from slender, shallow rhizomes.
Host plant for larvae of Virginia stenucha moth and agreeable tiger moth. The dull-barred endothemia moth larvae bore into its seed capsules, and picture-wing fly larvae feed on the flower buds. Due to its toxicity, deer and most mammals avoid browsing the plant.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Native Americans had various uses for irises, such as treating snake bites, stomach ailments, dropsy, urinary disorders, wounds, sores, ulcers, liver diseases, colds, fever, cholera, and earaches. They carried pieces of the plant while picking blueberries in order to repel snakes. The roots were used to treat sunburn by using a concoction called calamis, which is thought to be the precursor to calamine lotion.
Modern-day homeopaths use the rhizomes to treat urinary retention, liver and skin diseases, severe indigestion and abdominal pain, headaches with blurred vision, respiratory diseases, infections, and sepsis.
All parts of irises are used in perfume and aromatherapy, alcoholic beverage flavors, and many different dyes.
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