Friday, April 06, 2007

Ghost Flowers

When I look at old pictures of my garden, or when I look in my garden journal at plant labels from purchased flowers, I often see what I consider to be ghost plants: plants and flowers I once bought, or seeds I once sowed, but which have not survived in my garden. Many gardeners prefer not to remember our failures, the living things we have murdered through our own ignorance or lack of proper care. While this happens less frequently as I have learned more about what will and won’t work in my yard, it is precisely this experience that tells me some of the living things in my yard today will not survive the season, the climate change, their inevitable transformation into ghost flowers.

Driving in Jordan has a lovely picture of Jordan’s elegant and endangered flower, the Black Iris, which is enjoying it’s brief blooming season of April – May. Because they are increasingly rare, fragile, and reluctant to bloom when transplanted, the flowers are protected: in Jordan, it is illegal to pick them.

When I visited Petra, Jordan in December, 2005, I was able to recognize black iris plants from their rhizomes, which often were almost completely exposed, barely clinging to the dry, sandy, red soil. Although they were not in bloom, I saw a young Bedouin woman pick and offer them for sale to tourists like me. You might think that tourists would be more knowledgeable about things they shouldn’t buy, such as native flora, or lovely small chips of sandstone from Petra’s ancient carved stone facades, or shards of pottery that were fairly easy to identify as remnants of man-made objects. Sadly, no.

According to ecologist Maher Qishawi, who works with the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), (quoted in an article (18April2005) in First Jordan), there are “about five types whose color shadings can be classified as black.” The two most likely candidates for visitors to see in Jordan today are described by Dawud M. H. AL-Eisawi, in his “Field Guide to Wild Flowers of Jordan and Neighboring Countries”.

The first is the Black Iris (Iris nigricans) Prof. Al-Eisawi describes as 20-30 cm long with underground rhizomes, and notes that the leaves are usually much shorter than the flower stalk. He describes the habitat as “Marginal land and mountains, Amman, Madaba and Karak” and the flowering season as April-May. Jordan Flora advises that this variety “is found roughly from Karak north and has smaller leaves and flowering stems than its southern cousin.”

The “southern cousin” is the closely related Petra Iris (Iris petrana) has longer leaves. Professor AL-Eisawi describes this plant as having leaves 30-50 cm long, and flowers 12-18 cm in diameter. This variety is found south of Kerak, in places like Petra.

You can see the Black Iris pictured on old Jordanian currency. The small picture in the lower right corner, on the obverse of the twenty dinar note (next to King Hussein) may someday be the best reminder of the black iris. A better place to find the real plants may be closer than Kerak or Petra. Jordan flora says that “Professor Dawud Al-Eisawi, has collected variants and has them growing on the University of Jordan campus.”

The Black Iris is threatened by many factors besides greedy tourists, including the deterioration of its natural habitat. My advice to locals: wherever you can find them, see the Black Iris now. Enjoy these endangered flowers in their vanishing native habitat before they become a ghost plants, visible only on old currency and the yellowing pages of botany books.


Frances Goodman فرانسيس said...

I didn't know they are endangered, yikes. The problem with a flower that beautiful is that it makes people want to pick it, thus resulting in eventual extinction. Bummer. I hope I get to see some tomorrow!

desert mom said...

I saw your comment on my blog and see that you have visited in Jordan. I enjoyed your post on the black iris--I'm hoping to post some iris pictures soon as well as some other wildflowers indigenous to Jordan. Regarding your point about tourists and other picking and uprooting the black irises, I wonder if there might some way to begin a cottage industry to propogate the irises for sale. I did see some plants for sale at a local garden store so I bought a few to plant in my garden.

I lived some years in California and have fond memories of the orange poppy covered hills.