Raise the blue flags of summer

PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown

“I am an old woman,” sings John Prine in his classic song “Angel from Montgomery.” She’s full of desire but has no way to leave. “The years just flow by like a broken down dam.”

John Prine songs always relate to specific people and feelings. And lately, I relate to the idea that the years pass by quick. That thought weighs heavy when the blue flag irises bloom.

The northern blue flag iris may be found on the borders between wet and dry places. They thrive on lakeshores, on the edges of swamps and roadside ditches. They’re pretty common if you know where to look, which I sure didn’t until just recently. I probably stomped past a thousand blue flags when I was a kid growing up in the Sax-Zim bog. But I only noticed one a few years ago in a swamp along the dirt road by my house in Balsam Township.

I was traipsing by on one of my walks, drowning out the sounds of nature with the same two dozen songs I always listen to, when I saw the flower. Not just a ditch weed, but something fancy.

At first, I let the fancy flower exist as a sort of secret. I suspected it had a name and that I wasn’t the first human being on the planet to see one. But why not enjoy the fantasy? Alas, I had to go and look it up. Clear as day, those were blue flag irises growing in the swamp. I began to notice them elsewhere.

Irises lack the practicality of a daisy, but that’s their game. Bright colors entice pollinators to land on their custom designed petals to sip heavenly nectar while spreading pollen. The flowers market to a discerning sort of bee, the kind that could shop anywhere but only wants the best.

The name, “blue flag,” didn’t come from the flower’s resemblance to a flag, but from the original Middle English word “flagge,” which means “reed.” Aside from the month when they bling themselves out, blue flags closely resemble other reeds. That’s why it’s such a treat when they don the bright flowing robes of June.

Flowers that grow in wetlands often develop the most elaborate adaptations. Some of them eat bugs and others treat them like royalty to suit their purposes. Swamp flowers are pretty, but always running some kind of scheme. Blue flags are poisonous to eat, but have some medicinal qualities that indigenous people have used for ages. Heck, they’re not even blue. They’re purple. Proceed with caution.

The ancients ascribed special meaning to the iris. The three distinct petals were thought to represent wisdom, faith and courage. Like all of those noble traits, quantities of blue flags ran much higher before we started tearing up the natural wetlands and meadows. But they’re still out there and have proven resilient in the places I’ve found them.

Like seeing anything so elaborately beautiful, the blue flag evokes a sort of bittersweet thrill. How grand to see such a flower, and how quickly they fade.

Nowadays, I don’t mark the peak of summer by the a date on the calendar. Northern Minnesota’s best weeks of summer start when I see the first blue flag and end when the blooms fall away. Everything after that is hot fall: school prep and last-minute projects.

Today, the blue flags of summer are flying. Look for them in the sedges where the cattails grow. But they’ll be gone soon, just like summer, just like us. Make me an angel that flies through another winter.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, July 1, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. joe musich says

    Thanks. We live in sandy dry soil here in Mpls. As much as I want to grown there guys I have very little luck. However I have two gagantic stalks that come up every year on the Blvd. Flowers are extemely rare. The plants have been there for yerars. And will stay floweriing or not as an ode to stubborness. I had never looked for medicinal value. I appreciate for the inspiration….,”Uses
    Different uses for iris versicolor
    Blue flag is a plant. People use the underground stem (rhizome) of blue flag to make medicine. Despite serious safety concerns, blue flag is used as a laxative and to relieve fluid retention and bloating. It is also used to treat swelling (inflammation) and skin conditions; and to prevent vomiting.”….

  2. Elanne Palcich says

    I, too, love seeing the blue flags. And I have seen fewer and fewer of my favorite wild plants as they are sprayed away under power lines and lost as roads and shoulders are widened to fit bigger plows. It’s easy to go along oblivious to the plants and birds which are currently singing away. The continual sounds of traffic, lawn mowers, chain saws, etc. and the distraction of cell phones, radios, computers, etc., along with the busyness of our thoughts all interact to keep us separate from the natural world around us. It’s a sad thing if we get to the end of life and then realize that we have failed to appreciate the beauty and complexity of the planet that we have lived on.

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