The fleur-de-lis—lily flower in English—ranks up there with the Nike swish, the peace sign, and the one-finger salute as one of the most iconic symbols of all time.
From the scepters of kings eight centuries ago to the uniform patch of the City of Louisville swat team, it’s difficult not to find it incorporated somewhere in any locale with even a petit morceau of French history. It gets scuffed, scraped, and crunched on the helmets of the New Orleans Saints. It’s in all four corners of the Quebec flag and one corner of the flag of Montreal. A slightly modified version has been sewn on the uniform of every Boy Scout since 1919. And mother-of-pearl inlays of the fleur-de-lis are a common ornament on the peg heads of older Gibson guitars, banjos, and mandolins, though the French connection is more tenuous here.
In the span of a year, I saw it as a formal topiary, sheared and shaped from grey Santolina chamaecyparissus at La Citadelle in Quebec City, and then again as another formal topiary created from European boxwood in front of George Washington’s stone greenhouse at Mt. Vernon. A classic wrought iron fence would be incomplete without finial fleurs-de-lis crowning the top of each of the metal pickets, while living room curtain rods are just abrupt stubs without one attached to each end. It also figures prominently in the tattooist’s repertoire.
From a botanical point of view, the fleur-de-lis looks much more like an iris than a lily, and some historians think that its origin is patterned after Iris pseudacorus, a common iris that grows in wetlands throughout Europe. All irises have the same basic flower structure, comprised of three upright petals (standards) and three sepals called “falls” that arch gracefully downward, the middle sepal often tongue-like. So, really, any local iris growing in the French countryside a thousand or so years ago could have served as the inspiration for the symbol.
Its significance begins with the French monarchs of the 12th century who considered the fleur-de-lis to be a symbol of purity. For French rulers, it imparted a state of saintliness to their reign. Through the centuries, it has been incorporated into many coats of arms and flags, spreading throughout Europe and crossing the Atlantic with French settlement. The petals are thought to represent faith, wisdom and chivalry, while the religious context aligns them with the three parts of the holy trinity. The Boy Scouts added two stars, representing truth and knowledge, and gave each petal one of the three parts of the Scout Promise.
The fleur-de-lis is highly stylized, iconic, and instantly recognizable throughout the world. And while it will may never be as familiar as the almighty dollar ($) sign, or create the brand recognition of a bitten apple, its plant-based design and rich, centuries-old history places it squarely in the world’s top ten enduring symbols.