See all stories
8 May 2024

Plant Journeys blog post #4 – Iris: elegance by the pond

Written by Dr Minna Törmä (Senior Lecturer in History of Art, University of Glasgow)  
Four blue and yellow iris flowers pictured against a blurred greenery background.
Iris | Image: Shutterstock
Our gardens are a treasure trove of flora from across the world. In the fourth part of our blog series, Dr Minna Törmä continues to explores the East Asian plants found in the garden of ‘Glasgow Boy’ Edward Atkinson Hornel.

The Plant Journeys exhibition at Broughton House includes a wonderful selection of plant-inspired Japanese objects collected by Edward Atkinson Hornel when he was in Japan in 1894–95 and again in the 1920s. In this series, researcher Dr Minna Törmä explores the same plants by season, highlighting the history of their introduction into Europe, their meaning and significance in Eastern cultures and what makes each one so special.

Various species of iris can be found from Europe all the way to Asia, with depictions of them seen in temples at the Karnak Temple Complex in Egypt and in Persian miniatures. The irises grown in East Asia differ in appearance from their western counterparts, lacking the characteristic ’beards’. These irises were especially popular in Japan, where they were grown near the edges of ponds due to their rhizomes (a modified underground stem that produces roots and shoots from its nodes) spreading in water.

A colourised photograph of a lady in traditional Japanese dress kneeling and putting cut irises in a vase.
Lady preparing flowers, Broughton House

Hornel’s collection includes three Yokohama Nursery catalogues featuring Iris kaempferi, now known as I. ensata or the Japanese water iris. While we are accustomed to seeing purple or yellow irises, the catalogues display a variety of unique colour combinations, as seen in the examples below from Hornel’s collection.

Enjoyment of irises, even in the rain, is depicted in numerous Japanese woodblock prints, as seen in examples by Kiyonaga and Harunobu (18th century) below. Irises are also a common motif in screens, such as Irises at Yatsuhashi (Eight Bridges) by Ogata Kōrin: the sword-like bright green stems and purple flowers make a stunning contrast with the gold background, below. The same theme is found decorating the kimono, also seen below.

In poetry, the plant appears less often than many of the others featured in the Broughton House exhibition. However, Matsuo Bashō (1644–94), during his travels, observed the landscape in detail and discussed what he saw with his travel companions:

‘iris blossoms:

conversations about them are

one joy of the journey’

(David Landis Barnhill, trans., Bashō’s Journey: The Literary Prose of Matsuo Bashō (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), p. 41)

A new exhibition explores Dr Törmä’s research further – Plant Journeys: Stories of East Asian Plants in Hornel’s Home and Garden runs from now until 31 October at Broughton House, Kirkcudbright.

Explore Broughton House

Visit now