Saturday, May 11, 2013

Irises in Bloom

A once-yearly secret garden 

prize-winners' bed, seen from Piazzale Michelangelo

The iris garden of Florence is a small treasure to be enjoyed between April and May. It might almost be called a secret garden since the genteel ladies who run it are hopeless at PR, although, thankfully, over the years the iris display has received attention from the international press. 

glorious contrasts

A tourist visiting Piazzale Michelangelo for its incomparable in-your-face view of Florence might happen to look down, from the right hand parapet, and glimpse an iris bed on display below. But unless s/he were a particularly curious and enterprising tourist, s/he would almost certainly not realise, first, that the bed is merely a fraction of the garden, and second, that the garden is open to the public and free; although a donation is always welcome.

First prize winner in 1957: from the United States

One of the genteel ladies at the small stall where you may order the tubers from the Iris Society's catalogue, or buy a postcard or a leaflet, told me sadly that the Society is very short of funds, to pay the gardeners and other expenses, and that it relies on a handful of volunteers to continue to operate. It would certainly be a shame were the iris garden to close its doors in April and May, for it is a sight to behold.

more first and second prize winners

At the eastern corner of Piazzale Michelangelo only a battered sign and an open gate reveal that the garden welcomes visitors. You venture down a rough path past luxuriant greenery, a clump of aquilegias and the genteel ladies standing in anticipation at their small stall, to discover that the bed of mixed pastel and dark irises you sighted from above are in fact the First Prize winners of all time, dating back to 1957 when the iris garden was founded. The winners are from all over the world: we notice many signs from the United States. 

And you also realise that you are actually standing in an ancient olive grove and that the beds of irises, glimpsed through the branches of the olive trees, spread beneath you down the gradually sloping hillside towards the Arno. The paths are bumpy and cracked, the grass long and lush (this year the spring has been very wet) and some irises appear to compete with the grass for a showing. Yet their characteristic drooping sepals or 'falls' and upright petals or 'standards' are unmistakeable and, en masse, take your breath away.

some stand in orderly rows

The path continues to meander downwards and divide. There are blooms everywhere, most sporting the first flower of the season, others still unfurling. Suddenly a line of schoolchildren in pastels and whites bobs into view, wending its way back up the hill: they resemble a line of nodding irises.

some are surrounded by ropes, for it is all too easy to crush them underfoot as one leans in to admire

You start to examine the single blooms more attentively, notice the palest pink, the deep purple, the red-black; the frills, the curls, the contrasts. Most beds represent a year and a competition while others display the outright winners.

But they are all winners, all splendid, all perfect in this slightly rundown but romantic setting. The genteel ladies nod and smile as we thank them and drop a donation in the pot they have discreetly left for the purpose.

We leave slowly, sorry to return to the hurly-burly  of the piazza above. 

For visits to the garden, which is open between April 25th and May 20th, see the site of the Societa Italiana degli Iris
Open from 10-1230 and 1500 to 1900 daily. Free.

And while you are at it: also visit the Rose Garden on the western side of Piazzale Michelangelo, almost opposite. This is a public garden with beautiful perfumed roses plus that special view of the Duomo and other delights.

heaven-scented roses in Giardino delle Rose, Florence

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