Arid Environment

Where to find the distinctive black irises of Jordan

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Sitting beneath the branches of an ancient oak on a windswept hill in Jordan’s highlands during the first week of spring, I’m surrounded by a dazzling array of wildflowers. Purple anemones, red poppies, pink cyclamen, yellow and orange daisies. But one elegant flower stands out in the midst of all the bright blooms — because it’s completely black.

Mesmerized, I come closer to the lustrous dark petals, dropping to my knees to admire them. I had never seen a black flower in bloom before. Shining in the sun, three petals of the deepest black curve downward, and some patches look like velvet. They are extraordinarily beautiful.

“The black iris is Jordan’s national flower,” says Sawsan Oran, a professor of botany at the University of Jordan. “It’s an endemic species, and it’s a very special flower.” Her name, Sawsan, means “iris” in Arabic, and she was married for 40 years to Jordan’s leading expert in native flora, Dawud Al-Eisawi, who died of covid-19 in 2020.

“He was really in love with irises,” Oran says, her voice tinged with sadness. The flowers, she tells me, have adapted to a harsh environment and can be found on sun-parched hills, windy mountains and rocky cliffs, or at the edge of the desert. Her husband identified several species of irises with dark petals, from the fertile hills in the north to the dry lands and rugged mountains in the south. Although most people refer to them collectively as black irises, only one species, Iris nigricansis the country’s national flower.

Since it was adopted as the national flower in 1999, the name and image of the black iris have appeared in restaurants, cafes and hotels all over the kingdom. The flower is a great symbol of Jordan — of elegance, beauty and delicacy in a harsh, challenging environment. It captures the essence of the country, demonstrating that astonishing things can flourish even in the roughest of places.

But the flower blooms for only a few weeks in spring, and the short seasonal life means the real thing is hard to find. Intensive urbanization, plowing, overgrazing and climate change have made the flower more vulnerable and difficult to spot in the wild. In 2014, it was listed as endangered.

Fascinated by the black iris, I joined photographer Mohammad Asfour on a quest to find it. Mohammad has spent years exploring Jordan’s diverse wildlife and natural beauty, including the oak and pine forests in the north and the arid landscapes of Wadi Rum and Petra in the south. As spring began, we hit the road in search of black in bloom.

We first headed north. Even though about 75 percent of Jordan is desert, the fertile northern hills are bursting with wildflowers in spring. Our first stop was the Yarmouk Forest Reserve, in northwest Jordan, close to the border with Syria.

Staff at the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, which manages the country’s nature reserves, told us where we could find dark irises growing next to deciduous oak trees in Yarmouk. Picking the endangered flowers is, of course, strictly forbidden: The plant’s rhizomes are close to the surface, so they can easily be uprooted when picked.

In the reserve, we found striking dark irises on a hill with a stunning view across Jordan’s borders to the Sea of ​​Galilee and the Golan Heights. Many of the flowers were not entirely black. In the north, the most common dark irises are Jal’ad irises (Iris atrofusca) and dark purple irises (I. atropurpurea), whose colors range from black to dark purple.

The irises grow in areas whose histories go back thousands of years. Near the reserve, the ruins of the Decapolis city of Gadara, one of 10 ancient Greek cities in the Levant, are juxtaposed with an abandoned Ottoman-era village. Gadara is mentioned in the New Testament as the place where Jesus performed a miracle, casting demons out of men.

But the only miracle we were looking for was the dark iris, and we found some along the village roads south of Umm Qais and in the nearby forests of oak, pine, carob and pistachio trees around the nature reserves of Ajloun and Dibeen.

In Ajloun, a medieval castle built under the rule of Saladin commands impressive views of the Jordan Valley. We found dark irises nearby, on the edge of a cliff surrounded by hills of olive and oak trees overlooking the adjacent Kufranja Dam.

iris nigricans, Jordan’s national flower, is the “real” black iris and grows mostly south of Amman, between the ancient cities of Karak and Madaba. Driving through the Karak region, where a castle built by 12th-century Crusaders stands atop a ridge, we looked for the black flowers in uncultivated land and on mountainsides.

A shepherd told us he used to see irises in the area but hasn’t seen any this year. He blames the drought that has plagued the south of the country and dried up the closest dam.

“The black iris is under serious threat,” says Hatem Taifour, head botanist of Jordan’s Royal Botanic Garden, a nonprofit conservation organization. In addition to climate change, Taifour says, human encroachment is destroying the flower’s habitat. “This flower is absolutely unique. It can only be found here, so it needs to be protected.” While the Jal’ad iris also grows in countries, black iris populations are found only in Jordan.

Driving from Karak to Wadi Mujib, we were spellbound by the Dead Sea’s winding valleys, high cliffs and canyons but found only one black iris, just starting to open near a rocky cliff. Farther north, on the road to Um er-Rasas, a World Heritage site of Roman ruins and Byzantine mosaics, we suddenly saw glossy black petals emerging from a meadow of yellow wildflowers. We stopped the car and rushed outside.

Dozens of black irises quivered in the wind by the side of the road. Unlike most of the irises we found in the north, Iris nigricans is completely black. In contrast with the meadow of yellow wildflowers, its darkness is even more striking.

After finding the “real” black iris, we headed south to look for another type of dark iris identified as endemic to Jordan: the Petra iris. With petals in shades of dark brown, dark purple and black, Iris petrana can be found south of Karak, in the mountains and arid lands around Petra, Tafila, Shobak and Dana.

We drove to Dana, home to Jordan’s largest nature reserve, where the Petra iris can be found blooming on mountainsides and sandstone cliffs. But we arrived a few days too early, and most of the irises were still closed.

With our eyes so focused on the ground, we nearly missed an alpine swift soaring above our heads. Nearby, a cuckoo sang perched on the branches of a juniper tree, and two Tristram’s grackles cried noisily, looking for food. The Dana Biosphere Reserve is one of Jordan’s most important refuges for wildlife.

After more than an hour looking for Petra blossoms on steep mountainsides, I came across a dark violet flower with black spots blooming between volcanic rocks. “I found it!” I shouted excitedly, calling out to Mohammad, who was snapping photos of Dana’s spectacular landscape, and Emad Hasanat, who drove us more than 500 miles in our quest for black irises.

Emad, who is from Wadi Musa, the town nearest the archaeological site of Petra, was waiting for us on top of a rocky hill. He carefully walked down to look at the blossom I had found. “The Petra iris!” he cried out as he took his phone from his pocket to snap a photo. He stared at it silently for a moment, then smiled proudly. “It’s the most beautiful of flowers.”

Vidal is a writer based in Jordan and Portugal. Her website is martavidalmedia.com.

Ajloun Nature Reserve, Ajloun

These cabins managed by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) in the Ajloun Forest Reserve boast incredible views of Jordan’s northern hills. Single economy rooms from about $92 per night, double rooms from about $106 per night.

facebook.com/alayounsociety

Al Ayoun Society is a local community-tourism initiative arranging homestays in villages near Ajloun. Local guides can show hikers the best trails. Homestays from about $63 per night, double rooms from about $99; guided full-day tours about $71 per person.

Dana village, Dana Biosphere Reserve

Perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Dana Biosphere Reserve, this 23-room guesthouse is a convenient base to explore Jordan’s largest nature reserve. Single economy rooms from about $99 per night, double economy rooms from about $113 per night; single deluxe rooms from about $127 per night, deluxe doubles from about $141 per night.

bit.ly/dana-biosphere-reserve

The reserve covers a rugged landscape of mountain ridges, plateaus and desert plains. Ask local guides to show you where Petra irises grow. Self-guided hikes up to two hours about $14 per person; RSCN-guided hikes from about $17 per person for two- to four-hour hikes and about $28 per person for six- to nine-hour hikes.

bit.ly/ajloun-forest-reserve

You can sometimes find dark irises growing next to oak, carob, pistachio and pine trees in this reserve in Jordan’s fertile northern hills. Hikes from about $15 per person for a less than one-hour self-guided hike, from about $24 per person for RSCN-guided hikes from two to six hours and about $45 per person for a full-day hike that includes a visit to the Ajloun Castle and a lunch bag .

This reserve overlooking the Golan Heights is full of oak and pine trees. Dark irises grow amid bright blooms on windswept hills. (Ask staff members where to find them.) RSCN-guided hikes from three to four hours or five to seven hours; Self-guided hikes up to two hours. Self-guided hikes about $15.50 per person; guided hikes about $20 per person for three to four hours, about $24 for five to seven hours.

Wadi Mujib, Dead Sea Road, Sweimeh

bit.ly/mujib-biosphere-reserve

Mujib is the lowest nature reserve in the world, with rugged mountains and canyons bordering the Dead Sea. Black irises can sometimes be found at the edges of the reserve or on the road from Karak to Wadi Mujib. RSCN Ibex mountain trail hike with a guide from about $30 per person for a three- to four-hour hike.

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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