The Meaning, Symbolism, and Cultural Significance of Japanese Iris
Japanese irises are beautiful flowers that most commonly blossom in shades of purple and blue with the occasional white, yellow, red, or pink blossom. They have lush foliage and an even richer cultural and symbolic history. In this guide, we’ll run through everything you need to know about Japanese iris meaning and symbolism in the language of flowers.
- The Symbolic Meaning of Japanese Iris – The Essentials
- About Japanese Iris Flowers
- The Meaning, Symbolism, and Cultural Significance of Japanese Iris Flowers
- Japanese Irises in Hanakotoba
- Japanese Irises in the Language of Flowers
- The Modern Symbolic Meaning of Japanese Irises and Their Different Colors
- Japanese Irises and Flower Festivals (Matsuri)
- Official Regional and State Symbols
- Japanese Irises in Art and Literature
- February Birth Flower
- 25th Anniversary Flower
- Suitable Gifting Occasions for Japanese Irises
- Japanese Iris FAQs
- Japanese Iris Meaning: The Final Word
The Symbolic Meaning of Japanese Iris – The Essentials
Japanese irises symbolize elegance, admiration, strength, hope, courage, and health. They are also associated with trust, valor, and wisdom, in addition to loyalty, good news, glad tidings, and the arrival of happiness.
About Japanese Iris Flowers
The common name “Japanese iris” actually refers to three different species of irises:
- Iris ensata – Other common names include Japanese water iris and hanashōbu in Japanese.
- Iris laevigata – Other common names include rabbit ear iris and kakitsubata Japanese.
- Iris sanguinea – Other common names include blood iris, blood-red iris, and ayame in Japanese.
All three of these species belong to the Iris genus within the Iridaceae plant family.
This species of Japanese iris grows to be just over 30 inches tall. It has erect, strap-shaped foliage and produces flowers that open up into a pedestal shape with several petals that drape outward around the center. The flowers can be white, purple, blue, maroon, pink, or combinations of these colors with flashes of yellow toward the flower centers.
This species of Japanese iris grows to be two to three feet tall. It has slender, lance-shaped foliage and vibrantly colored flowers. This variety of Japanese iris flower is slightly more upright or perky, similar to a rabbit’s ears. The petals shoot upward before drooping toward the ground. They bloom in shades and patterns of purple, blue, violet, and white.
This species of Japanese iris grows to be about two feet tall. Its foliage is greenish-grey in color and sword-shaped. The flowers emerge from reddish or blood-colored spathes, which is why this species is referred to as Iris sanguinea. Flowers blossom in a variety of colors, including purple, blue, violet, reddish-purple, and sometimes white.
History and Origins
The native range of this species spans a variety of regions in Asia, including Assam, China, Japan, Kazakhstan, Korea, and parts of Russia. Iris ensata has also been introduced to the western Himalayas, Ontario, and parts of the eastern United States.
The native range of this species also spans Asia, growing naturally in China, Japan, Korea, and Russia. Iris laevigata has also been naturalized in the western regions of Australia.
The native range of this species also includes regions of China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, and Russia. Iris sanguinea has been naturalized in Austria and Assam, India.
The common name, “Japanese iris” refers to these three species of irises and their native roots.
Both the genus name and the family name of these plants come from the Greek word iris, which means rainbow and likely refers to the rainbow of colors that this family and genus of flowers blossom in. The scientific species names translate as follows:
- “ensata” – entagled (Latin)
- “laevigata” – smoothed (Latin)
- “sanguinea” – bloody (Latin)
Japanese Iris Uses and Benefits
Japanese irises are primarily prized for their ornamental value. They produce showy, colorful flowers that look delightful in early-summer gardens. Of the Japanese iris species, Iris ensata is the most popularly cultivated in gardens worldwide. It comes in countless varieties and has been widely hybridized and cultivated for its ornamental value.
Japanese irises are also popular flowers for growing in cutting gardens, as their cut flowers look gorgeous atop their sturdy stalks, making them a great addition to or showstopper blossom in floral arrangements.
Water Feature Planting
Japanese irises thrive in wet environments, making them an excellent choice for planting in and around water features such as ponds, streams, fountains, and swimming pools.
Japanese irises attract various pollinators, including hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and more.
The Meaning, Symbolism, and Cultural Significance of Japanese Iris Flowers
Japanese Irises in Hanakotoba
Hanakotoba is known as the Japanese language of flowers. It’s Japan’s symbolic system that assigns specific meanings to specific types of Japanese flowers. In hanakotoba, each of the three irises known as Japanese irises has its own unique meaning.
- Hanashōbu (Iris ensata) – Elegance or showing the spirit.
- Kakitsubata (Iris laevigata) – Happiness will surely come.
- Ayame (Iris sanguinea) – Loyalty, good news, and glad tidings.
Japanese Irises in the Language of Flowers
In the Victorian language of flowers, specific meanings were not assigned to different types of irises – except in the case of German irises, which were said to mean “flame” in certain texts. The Victorian language of flowers lumped the rest of the irises together and most often equated them with the simple meaning “message” which could be used to note that a bouquet was intended to send a message. According to other texts, irises meant “my compliments” in the language of flowers.
The Modern Symbolic Meaning of Japanese Irises and Their Different Colors
Irises symbolize admiration, strength, hope, courage, and health. They are also associated with trust, valor, and wisdom. As with other types of flowers, the color of each iris can change its symbolic meaning. Specific iris flower colors have the following symbolic meanings:
Japanese Irises and Flower Festivals (Matsuri)
These three species of irises provide inspiration for countless flower festivals across Japan, including:
- The Chiryu Park Hanashobu Iris Festival
- The Gyoden Park Hanashobu Iris Festival
- Kakitsubata Iris Festival of Shiseki Yatsuhashi
- Iris Festival at Nagai Ayame Park
- Suigo Itako Ayame Festival
Official Regional and State Symbols
Japanese Irises in Art and Literature
Japanese Iris Poem
In Chiryu, a city near the center of Aichi Prefecture, there is a famous garden of kakitsubata (Iris laevigata) where the Heian period poet, Ariwara no Narihira, wrote a poem within the Ise Monogatari that used each syllable of the flower’s name:
“KArakoromo KItsutsu narenishi TSUma shi areba BArubaru kinuru TAbi wo shi zo omou.”
In English, the poem can be translated to mean, “I have come so far away on this trip this time and think of my wife that I left in Kyoto.” Today, the temple located at this garden still holds a flower festival each spring to celebrate the blossoming of the kakitsubata.
Irises by the Japanese landscape artist of the Edo period, Ogata Kōrin, is a famous depiction of kakitsubata that consists of two separate panels, each comprised of six folding screenings. They are housed in the Nezu Museum in Tokyo and are considered to be one of Japan’s national treasures.
The irises featured on these screens are thought to have possibly inspired Vincent van Gogh’s post-impressionist painting, Irises.
February Birth Flower
Along with violets and primroses, irises are also official birth flowers for the month of February.
25th Anniversary Flower
Irises are the official symbolic flower for celebrating the 25th wedding anniversary. A bouquet of these sturdy, beautiful flowers is the perfect symbol of a strong and healthy marriage that has much hope for the future.
Suitable Gifting Occasions for Japanese Irises
Japanese irises are suitable for just about any occasion, but they are especially appropriate choices for celebrating a 25th wedding anniversary or a February birthday.
Japanese Iris FAQs:
Do Japanese iris flowers symbolize love?
Japanese flowers are not a direct symbol of love, but being the official flowers of the 25th wedding anniversary, they are used to celebrate love.
Do Japanese iris flowers come back every year?
Yes, all species of irises that are commonly referred to as Japanese irises are perennial flowers, meaning they come back every year.
How long do Japanese iris flowers last?
The last group of irises to bloom during the year, Japanese iris flowers enjoy a bloom time of about two weeks that begins in early to mid-summer, depending on the species and the region in which they are growing.
Are Japanese irises toxic?
All irises are considered to be toxic to humans, dogs, and cats. All of their parts contain toxins. However, toxins are most highly concentrated in the root systems (bulbs and rhizomes) of iris plants.
Japanese Iris Meaning: The Final Word
Japanese irises have a rich cultural history and are a part of many symbolic traditions. Having been greatly appreciated, admired, and enjoyed throughout history, irises can still be enjoyed today in floral arrangements, gardens, art, and festivals worldwide.
Andrew is the Editorial Director at Petal Republic. He holds a BSc degree in Plant Sciences and has trained professionally at leading floristry schools in London and Paris. In amongst overseeing a global editorial team, Andrew's a passionate content creator around all things flowers, floral design, gardening, and houseplants.