By Robert Blackhall-Miles FLS

Last year for advent botany I wrote about the Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) and its links to the Christmas story and the song of Solomon. This year, however, I propose another hypothesis as to the identity of the ‘Lily of the valley’ and the ‘Rose of Sharon’.
Another set of leaves makes its presence felt on my research nursery at this time of year. Curled and grey-green in colour they stand out vividly against the sand in their ‘long tom’ pots. From the moment they emerge they become a niggling worry. There is no easy hope here. They are a struggle and a torment, and my hope is only that I may keep them alive. If they reward me with flowers for my efforts, then I am jubilant. If they die I am afraid I am disappointed but never surprised. The aphids love them; spreading virus if I am not eagle eyed. When dormant and dry they are safe: yet If I water them too early to bring them into growth they rot, too late and they wither. They are my passion and have been my nemesis.
I have been told many times that I won’t be able to grow them successfully here in North Wales yet I carry on. They are a goal that I strive for and am pleased to say, tentatively, achieving.

Iris atropurpurea ‘Ben Ram’

I am talking of the Iris in the section Oncocyclus.
There are 8 species of Oncocyclus (some authorities suggest there are actually 9 or more) in Israel yet the section is found over a broad area of the middle east and Eastern Mediterranean. Growing from a rounded rhizome (Onco meaning mass and Cyclus meaning circular) they are found from Turkey and Georgia in the north through Iran and Iraq in the east and as far down as Egypt in the south-western edge of their range. Their flowers come in the same range of jewel colours as the wrappers of a box of chocolates and nearly all of them brandish a dark spot on their fall indicating an over night rest station for male solitary bees which facilitate their pollination. Scientifically the section is neatly defined, they have 2n = 20 chromosomes where their next nearest relatives in the section Regalia have 2n = 22, yet the species within it are certainly not.

Iris susiana L. in the Linnean Society collection

The type for the section is the Turkish species I. susiana (from ‘Susan’ or ‘Sawsan’) and this then leads to their Hebrew name of ‘Shoshan’ Irises.
‘By incident, if your name happens to be Susan, Susanna, Anne, Ann or Anna then it is derived from this ancient Hebrew name for the lily.’ – or is it an Iris?
The idea that the Lily of the valley, the rose of Sharon was really a lily, as I proposed in last year’s blog, starts to unravel.
The word Sharon itself may be a Synonymous parallelism and actually mean valley. The Madonna lilies are most certainly not ‘of the valley’ but of the mountains and thus we need to look to a different plant for our ‘Lily of the Valley’

The etymology of Shoshanna שושנה states quite clearly that the flower had six petals, where a rose has five, – shishi שִׁשִּׁי (from which Shosh is derived) being the ancient Hebrew for six. These six petals fit snugly with the lily yet they also fit so snugly with the six petals, the standards and falls, of an Iris which is certainly a plant found in valleys.

Iris atropurpurea showing urban encroachment

Iris atropurpurea grows in HaSharon, or the Sharon plane, where it is endangered by coastal development and a genetic bottleneck. It seems to fit even more appropriately when you think of other lines of the song. ‘like a Shoshana among the thorns’, ‘Like two fawns, the doe’s twins, grazing among the shashanim’ and ‘his lips are shoshanim’. The thorns may not be those of a rose or the spines of the Smilax or Ziziphus on the Carmel hill but more probably those of the thistles of the Sharon plane, the Iris grow best in these grazed habitats and only the lips of the dead are white like a lily; most people’s lips are pink like the flowers of this iris.
And that Fleur-de-lis, the emblem of the scouts and so widely depicted on the robes of Mary, is so very closely reminiscent of an iris flower it is almost recognisable as such.
Shoshan is mentioned 15 times during the course of the bible and only twice does it not refer to a flower.
Jesus is referred to as ‘Lily of the valley’ and the ‘Rose of Sharon’ in many songs and Psalms from the Christian faith. Some believe the depiction of love in Solomon’s song was a prediction of the one true love to come – the love of Christ – and the whole reason for our celebration of Christmas.
Alas we cannot turn back time and discover the true meaning of all of this. The Greeks and Romans both had their impacts on the ancient languages of the Middle East and modern Hebrew has taken on these changes. It is certain however that the wildflowers of this tiny strip of the eastern Mediterranean feature heavily in many cultures and not least of all Christianity.
With the Mediterranean basin having such a high level of speciation and being so heavily impacted by the activities of man this flora is in grave danger of becoming myth just as the Shoshana of the bible. Iris atropurpurea is likely to become the first Israeli endemic species to become extinct and 6 of the other 7 species of Iris in Israel are threatened with extinction (Sapir, 2016).

It seems that my passion and my nemesis may just have a deeper story than their chocolate wrapper flowers are able to tell.

Sapir, Y. 2016. Iris atropurpurea. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T13161450A18611400.

All images courtesy Robert Blackhall-Miles.

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