Iris as Lily as Symbol

The brand on the shoulder of Milady, Countess de Winter in Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers is a fleur-de-lis. It was burned into her shoulder by the executioner of Lille when she (a nun) and a priest (the executioner’s brother) were caught stealing sacramental objects to finance their flight from their lives in the church. According to Dumas, the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of the monarchy in France, was burned into the flesh of felons to mark them for life. In Justine the Marquis de Sade also mentioned the practice of branding criminals . Apparently the crown was making the analogy to the branding of cattle; the criminal was symbolically “owned” by the monarchy as punishment for their infraction.

The fleur-de-lis

Dumas’s use of the fleur-de-lis was the first time the symbol was impressed on my consciousness. I was probably in my early teens when I first read The Three Musketeers and although I had probably seen the three-pronged stylized flower before, but perhaps did not know its name.

The fleur-de-lis is ubiquitous in all places French and is widely used in other cultures as well. The literal translation is “flower of the lily,” but when it is represented in color it is yellow and there are no wild yellow lilies in Europe, and the fleur-de-lis has been associated with the French monarch since the 12th century.

The three-part structure more closely resembles an iris and Iris pseudacorus, the “yellow flag,” is native to Europe, northern Africa and western Asia, where the fleur-de-lis first appeared in iconography. The oldest known representations of the fleur-de-lis are known from Assyrian bas-reliefs of the third millennium B.C. It was found on Greek and Roman coins and is first associated with the area that would one day be called France when it was imprinted on Gaulish coins in the first century A.D.

Iris pseudacorus
Iris pseudacorus

According to legend (not borne out by documentation) Clovis (c. 466 – 511), the first Christian king of the Franks, had three fleur-de-lis on his standard. There are varying versions of the legend, but in most Clovis originally had three frogs on his standard, but was trapped by the Goths and desperately looking for a ford when he spotted yellow iris growing the river, a sign that the water was shallow. In gratitude he traded his frogs for flowers.

The first documented French monarch to deploy the symbol was Louis VII (AD 1137 – 1180). Louis’s standard was a blue field covered by fleur de lis, formally referred to as “seme de fleur de lys.” In 1376 Charles V codified the royal number of fleur-de-lis to three, reportedly to associate the monarchy with the Holy Trinity.

In post-revolutionary France, however, the association with the monarchy remained and the fleur-de-lis was expunged as a symbol of French government. The republicans went so far as to chip the monarchic symbol out of public building facades and clip it out of draperies.

Many French colonies, especially those in North America, such as Louisiana, Quebec and maritime Canada (“Acadia”) retained an allegiance to this ancient symbol of the motherland. It persists on the flags of Quebec, the cities of New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Lafayette, La., the province of Nova Scotia, and the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland.

Flag of Quebec

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina New Orleans residents revived the fleur-de-lis as a symbol of identity, spray painting it all over the city and having themselves tattooed with the French emblem “Tulane University’s assistant professor of modern European history Marline Otte, who conducted a series of post-Katrina oral history interviews, discovered that tattoos were a “phenomenon of mourning” that cuts across race, gender and economic lines.”

Because of the English occupation of much of France during the Middle Ages, the fleur-de-lis was incorporated into the royal standards to make clear the English claims on the France. The symbol persisted in aristocratic families and in the British army. Lieutenant-General Robert Baden-Powell, recalling the fleur-de-lis as a symbol of the army reconnaissance specialists, made the symbol of the Boy Scouts.


It’s Complicated Being Green

Plants are green because their cells are filled with molecules of a pigment called chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is a protein bonded to magnesium and resembles hemoglobin structurally. Chlorophyll molecules are found in organelles called chloroplast, which look suspiciously like cyanobacteria.

Lynn Margulis

In 1966 Lynn Margulis, then on the faculty of the biology department at Boston University, published a paper called “The origin of mitosing eukaryotic cells,” which revived the idea that eukaryotic cells had evolved through endosymbiotic combinations of prokaryotic (bacteria) cells. Margulis’s own contribution, in addition to her review of earlier speculative work, was to actually document through observations the structural similarities between eukaryotic organelles and various bacteria.

Chloroplasts are plastids (organelles that make and store molecules) found in the cells of the Archaeoplastida, which includes plants, green and red algae and glaucophytes. These organisms are distinguished from animal cells by their lack of a centriole. Red algae are pigmented with cholorphyll a and phycobiliproteins, while green algae and plants are pigmented with chlorophyll a and b and lack phycobiliproteins. In chlorophyll b an oxygen ion is attached to the C7 carbon where an alkene group is attached in chlorophyll a.

Chlorophyll looks green because it doesn’t absorb light energy in the green portion of the spectrum well and that energy is there reflected from the surface of chlorophyll-bearing structures, making them appear green.

The energy absorbed in the blue and red portions of the light spectrum is drives a “redox” reaction, causing the “reaction center” of the molecule to donate an electron to another molecule, which in turns donates it to another, so on down a series of molecules called the “electron transport chain.”

The reaction center is “reset” to a neutral state by receiving an electron from the oxidation of water into H+ and O2, which is the source of free oxygen in the atmosphere. When this reaction evolved in cyanobacteria in the Archaean Era at least 2.5 billion years ago. Over an unknown number of years photosynthesis by cyanobacteria introduced oxygen to the atmosphere, which had previously been composed of carbon dioxide and nitrogen compounds.


The chlorophyll molecules are embedded in the membranes of thylakoids, disk-shaped suborganelles that are arranged in stacks called grana. The grana float in the stroma, a fluid inside of the chloroplast. The thylakoid membrane is the site of photosynthesis.

The electron flow described above is used to move H+ ions across the thylakoid membrane. The end of the electron transfer chain is NADH, which moves the H+ ion across the membrane from the chloroplast stroma into the thylakoid lumen in the process of becoming NAD+. This leads to a build-up of H+ ions on one side of the membrane. They re-cross at different site—where the enzyme ATP synthase is found—to induce the reaction between ADP and an inorganic phosphate to form ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP is an energy-rich molecule that serves as a coenzyme in the reactions that make many other molecules in the cell and in cell division (i.e. growth).

The actual making of ATP, NADH, and the production of free oxygen constitute what are called the “light dependent” or light reactions. The “light independent” or dark reactions reduce inorganic carbon dioxide (CO2) to make organic compounds like glucose (C6H1206). The dark reactions actually continue at night, but do not stop during the day. However, the antecedents from the dark reactions are created through the light reactions, so without a light interval a plant will cease absorbing making organic compounds.

The “Keeling curve” of atmospheric CO2

The phenomenon can be seen in the cycling of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the well-known “Keeling curve” collected at Mauna Loa on the island of Hawaii. C. David Keeling of Scripps Oceanographic Institute started measuring atmospheric CO2 at Mauna Loa in 1958. The Scripps data show an annual cycle that reflects the seasonality of atmospheric CO2. As the vegetation greens up and grows in the northern hemisphere, it absorbs CO2 and reduces its concentration in the atmosphere by a few parts per million. As winter sets in and the vegetation dies back, and the light reactions slow, the amount of CO2 increases again. The amplitude of this seasonal cycle and the average value of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere have been increasing continually since 1958.