Iris and Asphodel

Christiana Jane Herringham (1852-1929), Iris and Asphodel, c.1900, tempera and watercolour on board, Royal Holloway, University of London

This delicate image reminds us that ‘bog’ or ‘peat’ gardens were popularised in the late nineteenth century by the horticulturalist William Robinson, as part of his ideal of the ‘wild’ garden whose plants grow freely as in nature.1 Claude Monet’s famous water garden in Giverny, created on marshy land, and featuring water lilies and other aquatic plants, is a variant of this. However, Robinson described the effects of ‘wild gardens’ as like ‘little pictures’, and Iris and Asphodel seems to answer especially to this idea; a bog in miniature, constructed by human hand.2 Robinson specifically recommended irises, that like damp conditions, for ’bog’ or ‘peat’ gardens, and here we see white irises are grouped with starry white asphodels, ferns, and what appears to be tormentil or St. John’s Wort (the yellow flowers) – all further peat-loving plants.3 Sedge, often found in bogs, thrusts amongst them with spiky brown flowers, whilst butterflies flutter at the right.4 

Like Robinson, Christiana Herringham much admired John Ruskin, the great nineteenth-century advocate of nature as the artist’s model. And the year before Iris and Asphodel, she had published an important translation of the fourteenth-century Italian artist Cennino Cennini’s art treatise, that recommended drawing from nature. However, she also found ‘human passion’ in early Italian art.5 We can perhaps thus read Iris and Asphodel, painted in Cennini’s tempera technique, as more than just a visual record of a ‘peat garden’. Both white irises and asphodel are, after all, traditionally grown on graves, whilst butterflies symbolise the soul.6 Herringham had in 1893 lost her beloved thirteen-year-old son Christopher, and believing that London’s pollution had killed him, she had moved to Surrey with her doctor husband, to protect their other son.7 Since the white Iris Florentina is named after Florence, the city where Cennini trained, we might see its depiction as referencing her beloved Italian Renaissance,8 and the flowers, growing from the damp peat, and attended by butterflies, as Christopher’s spirit reborn.  

In a wider context, we may note that just as Herringham helped pioneer appreciation of ‘primitive’ Italian art, and helped found the National Art Collections Fund to save historic artworks, so Britain’s first nature reserve, including many ‘primitive’ species, was established in 1899 at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire. In 1894 Herringham had assisted the pioneer geneticist William Bateman’s research, which included study of Wicken Fen insects9.

Fig 1: Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire; “Wicken Fen” by reynard is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit
Fig 2: Coenagrion pulchellum, Wicken Fen. Variable Damselfly by gailhampshire is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit
Fig 3: A small section of Sphagnum stem with leaves still attached extracted from a peat core some thousands of years old demonstrates the excellent level of preservation afforded to scientists studying peatland history by the acidic and anoxic conditions frequently found in healthy, intact peatland systems. Photo: with kind permission from Dr Tom Roland, University of Exeter.
Fig 4: This high-magnification (x400) image shows the detailed cell structure of a Sphagnum austinii leaf. Here, the ornate ‘hyaline’ cells are clearly visible, lined with characteristic comb-like lamellae which can be used to different this species from other members of the Sphagnum genus. Sphagnum austinii is capable of forming large, firm hummocks on raised and blanket bogs, but has historically been considered particularly rare. However, its range is slowly expanding as various peatland restoration projects restore habitats suitable for its growth. Photo: with kind permission from Dr Tom Roland, University of Exeter.
Fig 5: A single Sphagnum magellanicum leaf under high-magnification (x 100). Sphagnum leaves are one of the most distinctive features of the genus, when compared with other moss types. The complex, interconnected network of hyaline cells allow the moss to absorb and retain water, to keep the plant hydrated and allow the nearby photosynthetic cells to manufacture ‘food’. Photo: with kind permission from Dr Tom Roland, University of Exeter.

Due to the acidic (nutrient poor) conditions found in peatlands, specialised flora and fauna characterise the ecosystem. Many peatlands receive water primarily through rainfall and thus are isolated from the underlying water table which might bring nutrients to the surface. Consequently, only plants and animals that thrive in these low nutrient environments thrive. Almost six thousand species of plants and animals, including 25 of Britain’s rarest, live on our lowland ‘raised’ peatlands. Although the above imagery focuses on some of the more colourful ‘bog plants’ many peatlands are dominated by acid-loving species such as Sphagnum mosses, ericaceous shrubs such as heathers (Calluna vulgaris; Erica cinerea); cotton grasses (e.g. Eriophorum angustifolium; Eriophorum vaginatum) and the carnivorous sundews (e.g. Drosera rotundifolia; Drosera intermedia), all of which have their own particular beauty.  Shrub vegetation such as birches and willows may be found around the drier edges of the peat system. There are also many specialised insects that love the acid conditions, including a wide variety of beetles (Coleoptera), living in acidic bog pools or feeding on bog plants and mosses. Several are highly endemic and specialised, such as the mire pill beetle (Curimopsis nigrita) and the unusual ground beetle, Bembidion humerale. Both are rare throughout Europe’s peatlands. Around the edges of the peatland, especially in raised bog systems, a lagg fen may exist that is influenced by more enriched ground water. These areas are less acidic, this results in a wider variety of flora and fauna, such as mixed deciduous woodland. Once these plants and animals die, their decomposing remains become part of the peat, creating their own record, buried within the peat itself. Because the rates of peat accumulating from the plants growing on their surface greatly exceeds the rates of peat decomposition, peat can achieve many metres of depth (up to 12 metres), preserving many thousands of years of their environmental history within their deposits, allowing scientists to study our climate history and changing ecological status of our peatland systems. Examples of these remains may be found in Figs 3-5.  

Further information on different Sphagna we find on peatlands may be found here: 

Clare A.P. Willsdon and Nicki J. Whitehouse

[1] See e.g. William Robinson, The English Flower Garden and Home Grounds, 8th edn., London 1900, p. 264ff; Robinson’s colleague Gertrude Jekyll also promoted bog gardens (e.g. Jekyll, Wood and Garden, London, New York and Bombay, 1899, p. 3.

[2] Robinson 1900, p. 270 and p.41.

[3] I am grateful to David Mitchell, a former Curator at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, Vice Chairman National Trust for Scotland, and Chair of Scotland’s Gardens Scheme, for identifying the plants in this picture.

[4] Though the cultivated white asphodel is a different family from the yellow bog asphodel, it shares the latter’s preference for damp conditions (information kindly provided by David Mitchell).

[5] Christiana Herringham, The Book of the Art of Cennino Cennini, London 1899, p. xvi.

[6] See Jennifer Helvey, Irises Vincent Van Gogh in the Garden, J. Paul Getty Museum, 2009, p. 29, and anon., ‘Homer the Botanist’, Macmillan’s Magazine, Vol. 56, p. 429.

[7] For these and other details of Herringham’s biography, see Mary Lago, Christiana Herringham and the Edwardian Art Scene, London 1996.

[8] Since Iris albicans, the other white variety of iris, was not grown in Britain at the time, and Herringham’s white iris has the branching growth characteristic of Iris Florentina (cf Helvey 2009, pp. 22-3), it seems most likely that the latter is depicted.

[9] See (accessed 8.8.21) and William Bateson, Materials for the Study of Variation, Cambridge 2012 (first pub. 1894), p. 499. A peatland reserve was created for Oxford University in 1903, and appropriately named ‘Ruskin Plot’ (see George C. Druce, ‘The “Ruskin Plot”’, 1903, at (accessed 8.8.21)).