Iris domestica (L.) Goldblatt & Mabb.
(Iridaceae — the iris family)
synonym: Belamcanda chinensis (L.) DC.
common names: Blackberry Lily, Leopard Lily
In 2005, based on DNA evidence, Belamcanda chinensis, the sole species in the genus Belamcanda, was tranferred to the Iris genus and renamed Iris domestica. Domestica is from the Latin domesticus, of the house or family, domestic. In the former name, belamcanda comes from the Asian name for the plant, and chinensis means, of course, ‘from China’. The common name of Blackberry Lily (it is not a lily, but an iris) comes from the clusters of shiny black seeds exposed when the seed capsules split open; and Leopard from the spots on the petals. The plant is native to China, Japan, and the Himalayas. The wild varieties are generally yellow to orange to deep rust, and are often found blanketing hillsides; but they have been hybridized to produce many other colours.
The plant, a perennial, blooms in late summer, and the blooms are about 5 cm in diameter. The flowers are bisexual. Individual flowers generally only live for a day, but the plant produces a succession of blooms over a period of several weeks.
Iris domestica is propagated either by division of rhizomes or by seed. To get the seeds out, just split the pods open and remove the seeds. It’s a good idea to let them dry out a bit before planting, to prevent problems with mould. Plants from seed will usually bloom in the first year.
This plant has a very long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine. It is a bitter cooling herb that acts mainly on the lungs and the liver, lowering fevers and reducing inflammation. It is effective against a number of bacterial, fungal and viral organisms, and has also been used as an antidote to snakebite. The rhizome contains several medically active constituents. It is used in the treatment of acute laryngitis, acute tonsillitis, oedema of the glottis, and coughs with profuse sputum. The juice from the rhizome is used in Nepal to treat liver complaints, where it has the added benefit of improving the appetite. This juice is also used to abort a foetus during the first months of pregnancy, and should therefore not be used to treat illnesses in pregnant women. The rhizomes are harvested in the autumn, and dried for later use. The rhizomes also contain tannin, which is used medicinally, and as a dye, and as a stabilizer in pesticides.
Photographs © Donald Simpson, taken at Picnic Bay 2008-2012