One of the most mournful utterances you will hear from a gardener is: ‘I had one, but it died.’ Next up is, ‘I had one, but it doesn’t flower any more.’ This is the case, alas, with me and Iris unguicularis. I still have them, in a well-drained, south-facing spot, but they don’t flower any more. I have never divided them, so that may be the problem, but I will have to wait until midsummer before trying it. On the plus side, in spite of their allegedly being susceptible to slugs and snails, they are one of the very few plants in my garden that don’t get chomped.
I. unguicularis (also known as I. stylosa, or the Algerian iris) flowers, and produces scent, in the dank midwinter, when there are very few insects around to pollinate it. Since it increases through rhizomes, we must be grateful that it bothers to flower at all, let alone so spectacularly, in cold conditions and with low light levels. All the varieties are pale to mid purplish blue, except a white one, ‘Alba’ (aka ‘Bowles’s White’) which I have never seen.
‘Mary Barnard’, named after the lady who collected it in Algeria in 1937, has the RHS AGM, and there is another beauty called ‘Walter Butt’, which I first read – my glasses are currently broken, and I’m relying on my previous pair – as ‘Water Butt’.
(A great many more new hybrids are being produced in the USA at the moment.) But aside from the cultivars, within the colour range and the familiar iris petals and falls, the species produces many intriguing variations of shade and especially in the freckling on the falls.
The plant has a range from North Africa to Greece, Turkey and Syria. It was first named by the Abbé Jean-Louis-Marie Poiret (1755–1834), in his two-volume Voyage en Barbarie, ou Lettres écrites de l’ancienne Numidie pendant les années 1785 & 1786, sur la religion, les coutumes & les moeurs des Maures & des Arabes-Bédouins; avec un essai sur l’histoire naturelle de ce pays, published in the fatal year of 1789. Not a great deal seems to be known about his life, but he was a correspondent of the Abbé Raynal, and apparently something of a disciple of Rousseau (himself of course something of a botanist), to the extent that he saw in the Bedouin tribes of North Africa an exemplar of the Natural Man.
Probably more importantly, Poiret was a collaborator in and continuator of Lamarck’s Encyclopédie méthodique: Botanique, which began to appear in 1783. The change in Lamarck’s own ‘affiliation’ line on the title page between volume 3 in 1789 and volume 4 in 1795/6 is telling, and after a long gap, Poiret took over from volume 5 (1804) to the final volume, no. 8, in 1808.
In spite of being sent on his voyage by Louis XVI, and in spite, of course, of his being a priest, Poiret survived the Revolution. He seems to have kept a low profile, teaching natural history to boys aged 12 to 14 at the école centrale at Soissons in the Aisne from its opening on ‘le 4 vendémiaire an V’ (25 September 1796) to its closing on ‘1er floréal an XII’ (21 April 1804). In later life, he published a three-volume Leçons de flore: cours complet de botanique, explication de tous les systèmes, introduction à l’étude des plantes, ‘ouvrage entièrement neuf’ with 56 colour illustrations by the great botanical artist Pierre-Jean-François Turpin (1819–20), and, between 1825 and 1829, an Histoire philosophique, littéraire et économique des plantes de l’Europe, in seven volumes with an atlas.
I was intrigued to learn that I. unguicularis is claimed to have been introduced to Britain by the Honourable and Reverend William Herbert (1778–1847), third son of the first earl of Carnavon, of Highclere Castle in Hampshire, about whom I have written before in the context of the amaryllis. An undoubted polymath, he had an interesting career as a poet, classicist, politician, clergyman and authority on bulbous plants. Leaving Eton in 1795, he proceeded to Christ Church, Oxford, but moved to Exeter whence he graduated BA in 1798, and then to Merton (MA 1802; subsequently BCL 1808, DCL 1808, and BD 1840).
Herbert published various Latin poems, practised briefly at the Bar, and then turned to politics, serving as MP for Hampshire in 1806–7 (after what the ODNB describes drily as ‘a very expensive campaign’), and later (1811–12) for Cricklade in Wiltshire. In both constituencies he was noted as a liberal and an abolitionist, in favour of mitigating the game laws, and later (outside Parliament) supporting Lord Shaftesbury’s Ten Hours Bill, restricting the hours that children could work in factories.
A change of direction, mind and/or heart seems to have come about in 1812, and two years later, Herbert was ordained and given the living of Spofforth in the West Riding of Yorkshire (of which the patron was his uncle, the third earl of Egremont). In 1840, he was translated to the deanery of Manchester, then still part of the diocese of Chester. (Manchester obtained its own bishop in 1847, the year of Herbert’s sudden death at his London home off Park Lane.)
He continued to write poetry, including an epic, Attila, or, The Triumph of Christianity, in twelve books, published in 1838 and beginning in Homeric style, ‘Him terrible I sing, the scourge of heaven, / Who, braving the Messiah, with thy sword, / Dread Ariman, outpour’d his Scythian flood …’. Rather more to the botanic point, he corresponded regularly with William Jackson Hooker and John Stevens Henslow, and contributed both articles and drawings (his wife Letitia was also a botanical artist) to Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, of which the 1839 volume was dedicated to him.
Through Henslow, he met Charles Darwin, who wrote in the first edition of On the Origin of Species (1859): ‘Natural Selection, as we shall hereafter see, is a power incessantly ready for action, and is as immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art. …The elder De Candolle and Lyell have largely and philosophically shown that all organic beings are exposed to severe competition. In regard to plants, no one has treated this subject with more spirit and ability than W. Herbert, Dean of Manchester, evidently the result of his great horticultural knowledge.’
Darwin was one of the last people to see Herbert before he died, as he told Joseph Dalton Hooker in a letter written on 2 June 1847: ‘I saw the poor old Dean of Manchester on Friday & he received me very kindly: he looked dreadfully ill & about an hour afterward died! I am most sincerely sorry for it.’ (An excellent article by Alison Rix on the Dean and his botanical works and significance can be found in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine for 2014.)
Like many botanists of his time, Herbert exchanged plants and bulbs with colleagues all over Europe. His works on the Amaryllidaceae, an attempt to arrange the Monocotyledonous Orders (1837) and his History of the Species of Crocus (seen through the press by John Lindley after his death) are still important today. His sermons were thought to have been rather dull, but I think he can be forgiven for this small failing, given the amount of pleasure and information his botanical sideline has given the world.