Two clumps of yellow irises, the wild kind that grow in the shallows of ponds and streams, are in bloom in my garden. They’re planted in tubs of water. I’m always struck by the way, wherever they are, that these plants ‘know’ when to come into flower. I think of our north London days and the irises around Mill Hill pond. They’re probably flowering now.
The forebears of my plants grew in a ditch by a small building site in Devon in the mid 1970s. They remind me of a day in May when I took a nearby footpath across a field, over a railway footbridge and down to the estuary of the river Teign. It was very early in the morning. A golden haze obscured the sun.
In the wide, glowing silence, I heard the distant call of a cuckoo.
My young family enjoyed walking across the field, over the bridge and down to the tidal shore, where they climbed and slithered on the wet rocks, near where empty dinghies bobbed. On the other side of the broadening river an ancient pub overhung the water.
I took a few roots of wild iris from that building site and they bloomed in our gardens annually in the 35 years which have passed since.
But these flowers have an even earlier association for me, for I recall, before the 1939-45 war, walking with my parents and another couple along a footpath by the River Plym. I can picture now the adults spotting some flowers blooming in a marshy dip near the stream. ‘They’re irises’, someone said, and the two men clambered through the undergrowth to pick some of them. That’s when I first saw the flower or heard it named.
And I can remember my mother going for an impromptu swim in the Plym and losing her top – to the amusement of the party. I can’t remember what happened. None of the adults can have been as old as 30.
And then my reverie today, which started as I poured water into my tub of wild irises, took me to further vivid memories of that era and that lovely county. Happy images of that time stay with me: my grandfather picking a sprig of red campion from a high, green hedge. He called the flower a ‘button hole’; or a lone foxglove growing on the moor near Meavy. Perhaps I should leave these memories till another day.