Visiting Florence’s Iris Garden During Covid-19

An iris in the garden during the 2021 edition

Until Thursday, May 20:  OPENING OF THE IRIS GARDEN. Piazzale Michelangelo.  10 am – 6 pm.  Free admission.  Guided visits at 11 am and 4 pm (max. 20 people) with a €5 donation

Perched on the hillside right next to Piazza di Michelangelo there is a hidden gem open to the public only a few weeks out of the year during its prime time: the Iris Garden. From the piazzale, head west to find the small gated entrance, then walk down a few steps and suddenly you will be greeted by a colorful array of blooming irises under a grove of olive trees.

To comply with COVID safety protocols, guests must follow the self-guided tours indicated by signs along an itinerary.  Visitors who will be distanced at least one meter (3.2 ft.) from each other through the six-acre (2.5 hectare) garden, some of which will be closed off for security reasons.

Walking through the garden one is taken aback by the wide variety—over 6,000—of irises. Pay attention to the detail of each flower as they are the result of many years of breeding and patience. Some have solid colors of purple or white or peach, others seemingly imitate the sunset with their gradient of yellow to dark red, and others have bottom petals of yellow and top petals of pink. But the sight of these flowers is not the only thing to behold, they are also characterized by a variety of fragrances.

This year brings an addition to Florence’s Iris Garden — a plot with planted with 30 rhizomes that will bloom next year– donated by the local Romanian consulate from collections all around the country.  The gift was made as a tribute to Helen (1896 – 1982) of Greece and Denmark, Queen Mother of Romania.  A garden lover, she lived in exile in Fiesole from WWII to the year before her death in Switzerland, generously helping the residents of Florence in the aftermath of the great flood of 1966.  Also in Helen’s memory, on the 125th anniversary of her birth, the Romanian Consulate is sponsoring the fiorino d’oro, the grand prize awarded to this year’s most beautiful iris in the garden.

Almost every iris in the garden has been brought with the goal of receiving recognition in the annual competition hosted there by the Italian Iris Society dating back to the first competition in 1954 when the garden was established. Every year, breeders from all over the world send in their bulbs to be planted in Florence’s renowned Iris Garden. To compete, the judges must wait patiently for three years for each iris to grow to its full potential and then they can be judged not only for their looks but also for their strength against the elements, fragrance, most original color, and the duration of their blooming period. Five years after each competition, about 60% of the entries are then replanted throughout the garden to make room for the next batch of competitors.

No better place exists to host such an event, as contrary to popular belief, the symbol of Florence is not the depiction of a lily, but it is that of an iris. Originally, the symbol of the iris was white against a red banner, inspired by the white iris—iris florentina—growing wild on the Arno riverbanks, but then some feuds between the middle class and aristocrats took place, called the Guelph-Ghibelline feuds in which the Guelphs prevailed and instituted an autonomous government, the “Primo Popolo.” To commemorate this victory, the Guelphs inverted the colors of the banner to a red iris with a white background, and so it has remained. Ironically though, bright red irises, as the color of the symbol, do not exist. Every year breeders try to propagate this red color, but there is still a long way to go before the world sees the desired shade of red to match the Florentine iris symbol.  (martha beatriz gonzalez/additional reporting by rosanna cirigliano)