In the beginning....The Blue Flag

By Sharon Brown (Sharon) on May 13, 2010

It's been a long time since I lived in the mountains of southeast Kentucky, and a very long time since I transplanted wild Blue Flags from the side of one of those mountains into my great Aunt Bett's back yard. To me they were beautiful, to her, they were medicinal. Some things are not meant to be forgotten.

I grew up in southeast Kentucky, right in the middle of the most gorgeous mountains you've ever seen. It was during World War II, and my dad was serving our country in the Pacific. I had never met him, but my mother talked about him every day as she taught me all about the flowers she grew in her garden. We didn't have much money, but we did have an abundance of wildflowers that grew all around us. It didn't cost a thing to transplant wildflowers, and for my mom, they grew quite happily. 

I have to admit, the flowers were in her garden before I was. They were already in bloom the summer of my first year. By the spring of my second year, I knew all their names, and I knew how to very carefully plant them, whether from seeds, or by moving them from one mountain plot to another. 2010-05-12/Sharran/a14c2f

In those days my favorite color was blue. There was only one blue blossom that I cared much about, and my mom called it a Blue Flag. When it bloomed it was about as tall as I was, and I loved that I could greet its blooms every morning, nose to nose. I don't remember that it had a scent, but that didn't matter, it was the most beautiful of all the blossoms in her garden. 

I grew up and had my third birthday, my dad came home from the war, and we moved to the house where my dad had grown up. It was a wonderful house, full of hiding places, nooks and crannies that little girls loved. But it had no flower gardens. My Granny Ninna still lived there, and she had her own living area on the second floor. She didn't have much use for plants that didn't provide food, and I missed flowers, especially my favorite Blue Flags. 

It wasn't long before my mother had a flower garden or two, and I had a little one of my own very near the tiny mountain stream that flowed down the mountain beside our house. The first thing I planted was one Blue Flag. Ninna said it wouldn't grow, since I insisted on placing its rhizome mostly on top of the ground, but I knew better, and I probably told her so. It grew, and it bloomed, and I was very happy. 

Just down the dusty one lane road from my house lived my mother's Aunt Bett. I didn't know her very well. She had never had children, and she seemed very serious to me. One day she walked up the road to our house and said she needed a root from my Blue Flag. What?? She wanted to take the root from my very own Blue Flag?  I didn't understand, and very nearly cried right in front of the adults in my life. I had no idea that rhizomes multiplied, nobody had ever told me. 

I was not one of those children who was seen and not heard. I quite clearly told Aunt Bett that I couldn't give up my favorite flower, and she might as well go up the mountain and find her own. My mother was a little upset with her opinionated daughter, but I remember clearly that Aunt Bett knelt in front of me so that we were eye to eye. She told me that she made medicines from very special plants and that the Blue Flag provided some of the best medicine that made sick folks well again. She told me how very important the Blue Flag was. She also told me that the roots had grown and divided themselves into many more roots and that my Blue Flag would not miss one little part of its root.

I liked people who talked to me like that. She didn't treat me like a brainless child, she told me just the way it really was. And besides, she had twinkling 2010-05-12/Sharran/1c561bblue eyes much the same color as mine. I liked her, I really liked her. So I agreed that she could have some of my Blue Flag roots, as long as I could help take the medicine from it. I really wanted to see that medicine. I also told her I'd teach her to grow her own blue flags, and eventually I did. 

That was the beginning, and most of you know the rest of my journeys with Aunt Bett. But during that summer when I was somewhere around 4 or 5 years old, this is what Aunt Bett taught me. 

The blue flag, iris versicolor, is a common old wildflower, but so very beautiful. It is also called liver lily, poison flag, and water flag. It was named in honor of the Greek goddess of the rainbow, and the many colors of irises are almost more than we can count. It has for my lifetime been a mainstay in a lot of gardens in my part of the country. The blue flag is one of many wild irises native to eastern North America. The early settlers named it blue flag because it so closely resembled the common European species, the yellow flag. The yellow flag was the model for the fleur-de-lis, the emblem of French royalty.

Blue flag has also been called liver lily, because its dried and powdered 2010-05-12/Sharran/e230b4rhizomes at one time were believed to be excellent remedies for impurities of the blood and diseases of the liver. The American Indians, Aunt Bett's ancestors, prized the blue flag as a virtual panacea. They used it for many things, including as a poultice for treating sores and bruises, as well as a remedy for those same ailments as the white man used it. Some Native Americans are said to have planted the blue flags very near their villages so they'd always have an abundant supply, which would account for the wild abundance of them in the mountains.

She also told me that if I ever took a bite of the blue flag, I'd get very sick because used improperly, it's quite toxic. She told me then that it also had another name, poison flag. 

So you see, the wild iris and I go back a long way. It was my introduction into gardening, and it was my intro into the world of medicinal plants. It also provided the bond between my Aunt Bett and me. I learned a lot from both of them, Aunt Bett and my favorite Blue Flag. 

I like to think I taught Aunt Bett a thing or two as well. 

The two blue flag photos are from Wikipedia Commons, the first is attributed to D.Gordon E. Robertson, and the second is from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.  The old photo is my own.


I asked my very good friend Sharon if she would do an article for my Cubit. I never expected to get an Aunt Bett article!!! Needless to say, I am pleased as punch with this wonderful contribution to my Cubit. 

Thank you so much Sharon my friend......Polly

Related articles:
Appalachian mountains, blue flags, iris, medicinal plants, southeast Kentucky, storytelling, wild iris

About Sharon Brown
I am a retired Art and Humanities teacher living in western Kentucky. I grew up in the mountains of southeast Kentucky where I fell in love with the wildflowers of my state. Now that I'm retired, I write a lot, I paint a lot, and I enjoy gardening.

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
Thank you, thank you! PollyK May 24, 2011 9:39 AM 11
Here a french translation of this article. sylvainruaud Dec 28, 2010 1:25 PM 1
not a quiet child? Lance Nov 5, 2010 8:46 AM 14
A little more info on Blue Flag PollyK Aug 12, 2010 7:58 AM 24
Good one Sharan Lilyhosta May 17, 2010 6:45 PM 1


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