Summer in south Alabama isn’t a season. It’s a siege. When you wait until 11:30 at night to walk your dog, and even then your back porch thermometer is stubbornly stuck on 95 degrees… well, it’s best to concentrate on things you can accomplish indoors. So I have been carving botanical wall panels. And from the look of our weather forecasts for the next few weeks, this panel will be the first of many.
Two of my favorite residents in our summer garden are the Louisiana iris and the eastern tiger swallowtail. Technically, the swallowtail is more of a visitor than an actual resident: they lay their eggs among our fennel, and their garishly striped caterpillars remain with us for a week or two before being carried off by parasitic wasps. (The caterpillar saliva, mixing with plant juices as they munch away at the fennel stalks, emits an aroma that attracts the wasp. Around the time the plump caterpillars reach two inches in length, incoming wasps arrive to airlift them away like tiny helicopters. It’s quite a spectacle, if you happen to be nearby when the raid is launched. Although 25-30 swallowtail eggs hatch each summer in our herb bed, I have only had one caterpillar lucky enough to escape a waspy death and enter cocoon stage. Still, lovely though the adult swallowtail may be, I’m rooting for the hard-working wasps. They are beneficial insects in our organic garden, constantly patrolling to remove tomato hornworms. But I digress.)
The Perfect Man grows a perennial clump of Louisiana iris in his water garden, outside our back door. They are one of my favorite flowers to sketch, with their long necks and intensely purple blooms. Older folks in this region call them blue flag, and they are the inspiration for the famous fleur-de-lis that has become the symbol of New Orleans’ French heritage. During the Sixth Century, while King Clovis was busy conquering heathens in present-day France, he escaped a horde of rampaging Goths by following irises across a shallow part of the Rhine River. In gratitude, he adopted the flower as his emblem and it became the symbol of the kings of France. Not too long ago, when I was designing a garden flag based on an antique gold fleur-de-lis, it was easy to see the flower’s form behind the design: