Growing up in the south and along the Texas Gulf Coastal Plains, the coming of spring brought a host of colorful wildflowers and one of my favorites of the Iridaceae, (Iris family) and most abundant was the Southern Blue Flag (Iris virginica) or Virginia Iris. This popular southern iris took on many nicknames by the locals such as the Louisiana Iris and Swamp Iris among many others as well.
In the later years of my life and after relocating father north into the Mid-Atlantic region and southern Pennsylvania, the Harlequin Blue Flag or Northern Blue Flag, (Iris versicolor) drew my attention.
Little did I realize, and after my interest in “wild” botany grew, I’d discover a miniature replica of the larger species of these colorful plants. In fact, viewing these photographs (like the one above) can be deceptive unless you pay close attention to the surroundings and items that may give a reference to the actual size of these tiny wonders.
Ten or so years back, a close friend and wildflower mentor, Elmer Schweitzer introduced me to these wonderful tiny plants, and close to home blooming along a busy road traversing the Michaux State Forest in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania,
This species lives up to its name, “Dwarf Violet Iris” very well and is hardly noticeable while passing by at highway speeds. Unless you know of their existence, you’ll really never see them or perhaps just confuse them with the abundant and popular springtime common blue violets found along so many roads, thus again taking the word “violet” as part of its name.
Again, referring to “size”, if you look closely at the image above and within the lower left-hand corner, you will notice a leaf from a nearby tree. It lends a good reference to the actual dimensions of this species. There will be a few more images that can help distinguish this to follow, so pay attention to the surrounds and detail.
Photographing the Iris Verna in full bloom is a “luck by chance” affair. The tiny blooms are extremely delicate and susceptible to nature’s elements and even a slight bit of precipitation can foil their appearance and discolor the petals, so you have to catch them at “just the right time”, shortly after the bloom is in full and before any rain.
So, unless you can dedicate the time for daily visits, and during their “more often not” dependable schedule of bloom, any quality photography can be a challenge. I believe I’ve only had opportunities 3 times during the past 10 years, and I’ve had to be choosey as to which ones to photograph. But this falls in line with many of our wildflower species that are delicate in nature and “short-lived”. Some are far hardier than others.
Small plants and wildflowers are fun to photograph, and sometimes quite a bit of work that requires a lot of calm and patience. Above I mentioned catching them at just the right time but failed to mention the conditions needed for successful photography. With the delicate petals, the slightest hint of a breeze can and will create havoc, especially with longer exposures required by the lens being stopped down for maximum depth of field of focus and the desire for somewhat subdued light instead of the harsh sunlight unfavored by most of us who attempt this type of photography.
The Dwarf Violet Iris falls right into the category above and can be a royal pain. So, you found the perfect bloom and then the wind is blowing and “The fun begins”! This type of photography also becomes MACRO (close-up with specialized lenses) in nature and the lack of any movement is critical for success. So, obscenities under breath are common with the frustration involved, but it’s all in a day’s work!
The Iris Verna or Dwarf Violet Iris is broken down into two variations, one being the Iris verna var. verna or Coastal Plain Dwarf Violet Iris and the other being the Iris verna var. smalliana or Upland Dwarf Violet Iris which are pictured in this post.
The coastal plain dwarf violet iris occurs in the coastal plain and piedmont of the southeastern states from Maryland south to Florida whereas the upland dwarf violet iris occurs in the eastern states from New York south to Georgia, west to east central Mississippi, with scattered populations in the Ouachita mountains of Arkansas and Ozarks of Missouri. Both are commonly found growing in nutrient poor acidic soils and within semi-shaded mesic to dry woodlands.
“A Special Plant Indeed”, the Dwarf Violet Iris pictured within this post were photographed here in Pennsylvania and are classified by the USDA legal status for this species as “endangered’’ within this state along with another, Maryland. A “threatened” classification exists for the state of Ohio. Notably, over the past years that I have observed and photographed them; I’ve witnessed a concerning decline in their presence.
At the time I was first introduced to these plants, there were multiple small patches along about a 3/4-mile segment of this road. Over time these patches have slowly decreased in volume and some have totally disappeared for reasons unknown to me. At present, only a few patches remain within less than a 1/8-mile distance and only near one end of the previous range.
As with most “sensitive species”, a careful watch is maintained over these plants both by the District Forester and Botanist along with several extension groups from universities and dedicated native and wild plant groups. During my last photographic outing for this iris, my time was shared by the District Forester with wonderful conversation and I only wish I would have mentioned my observation of their decline. Perhaps he might have had some answers.
The Michaux State Forest staff maintains a healthy vigil for these plants with early season mowing to retard growth of brush and invasive plants to help clear the area for a yearly presence of this species with plenty of breathing room and sunlight for their continued existence.
My photography of these tiny Iris and the images within this post took place over three different outings with the first in 2014 and followed by two more in 2016 and 2018. I had attempted several more only to find the plants and blooms tattered by the elements, unpresentable and not worthy of the effort involved except perhaps only documentation purposes. “But this is Nature Photography in general and at its normal.”
I tend to go “Whole Hog” with my efforts and as I mentioned before will be be quite choosy with the light available and time of day. I simply despise direct overhead and harsh sunlight, and much prefer a thin overcast sky lessening any unwanted shadows. I pretty much had these conditions over all three of the outings. With the flat light, I may use a very low powered flash as a fill and highlighter with a manual and slightly cool white balance with the picture setting/style in-camera set as flat as possible for maximum dynamic range.
Now that being said, and since I’m shooting RAW, the in-camera settings are strictly for reference and evaluation of the rear LCD as to exposure and color during the capture and you still have to apply these settings during your post work and perhaps even include more tweaks to curtail over-saturation prevalent with some colors, especially based on their density or transparency.
I will again stress the importance of the above conditions and the “flat” (neutral) in-camera settings as well as using “evaluative or matrix metering” (matrix for you Nikon people) to meter a wider area instead of simply spot metering one tint. That also applies to the ETTL (evaluative through the lens metering) requirement of the flash for the fill.
Finally, I will list the gear I used for these outings and this species to include both the Canon EOS 5D and the Canon EOS 5D III, Canon EF 100mm f2.8L and Sigma 180mm f 2.8 DG OS MACRO, Canon 580EX and 430EX Speedlites with diffusion. Induro CT214 8X carbon fiber tripod and the Really Right Stuff BH 40 Ballhead. Canon Cable Release remote for triggering the shutter and I want to stress using “mirror-lockup” for eliminating vibration.
Dwarf Violet Iris.. Iris verna, var.smalliana