The southern dwarf iris is restricted to the southern Italian region of Puglia, Sicily and surrounding islands, including the Maltese islands. The plant, known locally as bellus, is rare and strictly protected in Malta. In the Italian territories it is a common species throughout its range, except in the southeastern part of Sicily – the region which is geographically and biologically closest to our islands.
This species is interesting in more ways than one. It is a perennial plant with evergreen leaves that grow out of an underground tuber which provides nourishment during the leaner periods and allows the plant to flower in winter.
The leaves are sword-shaped and grow between 10 and 25 centimetres. The flowers come in a variety of colours: violet, purple or yellow. Sometimes different coloured flowers can be found together in a single population, but not in Malta; locally, single populations consist only of flowers of the same colour.
Iris flowers have a particular shape that is used as a model for the fleur-de-lis, a popular decorative design used in heraldry and as a religious and political symbol. It is also part of the symbol of the scouting movement.
The flower is also an emblem of the Virgin Mary and because of its three petals, it has been used to represent the Holy Trinity.
The flowering period of this species is from January to May. In Malta it is in flower between January and early March. Further north, this species will come into flower later and remains in flower until longer.
The flowering period depends on the latitude and altitude of the plant. Further north and at higher altitudes, the air and ground temperature tends to be colder and the air warms later than in more southerly regions and closer to sea level.
This article was published in The Times on 6 March 2013.