Apostle plant lovely even not blooming

A world- renowned artist, Lauren Ford, had the parent of my first fan iris/apostle plant. A mutual friend who worked for her gave it to me. I say friend because everyone who helped Miss Ford at her Bethlehem, Conn., farm was just that. My friend helped tend the plants in Miss Ford's greenhouse.

The "apostle plant" -- so-called because it usually bears 12 sword-shaped leaves -- is a great propagator. It is more commonly known as fan iris (Neomarica northiana),m thanks to its fan form. Each year it sends out a number of plant shoots that are eager to be transplanted. When I received mine I had no idea what was in store.

The plant is lovely even when not in bloom. But in early spring it "happens." A stout central blade grows and produces a narrow, flat bud. This bursts to deliver an exquisite white flower that lasts for only a day. If not alert one can easily miss it. Soon the flower curls back and closes in the manner of irises.

The flower is a breathtaking apparition, exuding a delicate fragrance. It seems enthroned on its greenery, with pure white falls. Then are exposed three violet uprights with white markings -- veinlike as on the back of a leaf. They indent to display brown, with the same white, veinlike tracery, narrowing to starlike carpel.

A distance out from the uprights is a bed of bronzy tracings on a white ground (reminiscent of the feathers on the tail of a partridge). A plant may have more than one stalk, each tip holding a fairy-flower. Studying such perfection with a hand lens, one notes an overall gleam of moisture. In its Brazilian jungle habitat, this and the fragrance would probably be agents designed to lure nectar-gathering insects.

Nature draws guides, maps, and charts for its purpose of continuity. With the fan iris it is again evident. Down the center of each petal a straight white line leads to nectar, with featherlike fronds backing off from it. Three tall white stamens are star-tipped, also alluring.

But indoors the plant must be self-pollinating. So the flower dries up in a day. But that's not all. The flower must never be pinched off at this stage, for in a a few days a second flower will appear nearby, and possibly three or four before that stalk has completed its mission.

Finally, beneath the dry flowers a rhizome begins to form. Eventually, the strap may be cut off and the rhizome transplanted. It likes to be crowded, is content with average garden loam, and requires a reasonable amount of water. It also likes to be sprayed.

I keep my plants outside all summer and don't fertilize them except once or twice at winter's end.

These delightful spring flowers resemble a cross between an orchid and an iris and also carry the name of "false flag." Napoleon adopted the iris at his dynastic flower, and the people of Florence, Italy, recognized it as their emblem.

Has Napoleon or those earlier Florentines seen this fan iris/apostle plant, wouldn't they have been awed before such elegance?

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.