During his last days in the sunlit South of France, in May 1890, Van Gogh paid final tribute to the "season when there are lots of flowers and thus color effects," in a capstone series of still lifes devoted to irises and roses. See Van Gogh's Provençal bouquets at the Met in an exhibition timed to accord with the seasonal blooming of the flowers—which may be appreciated firsthand at NYBG.
Bearded irises are classic garden plants that are named for the small appendages, or "beards," located above their downturned petals, known as falls. There are more than forty species of bearded irises and many more cultivated varieties. Bearded irises gained popularity as garden plants in Europe in the sixteenth century. In the nineteenth century, hybrid bearded irises were increasingly grown in France. These perennials would have added rich color to the landscape in Provence when they bloomed in late spring and early summer.
Irises can be grown in shades of white, yellow, pink, lavender, deep purple, and even dark red. Bicolor irises and irises with spots and other markings can also be found. This wide range of color earned the genus its name—for Iris, the Greek goddess of the rainbow. Many bearded irises also have a sweet, fruity fragrance. Dwarf varieties are well-suited to rock gardens, while taller standards are often found in the middle of deeper borders. The tall, upright, sword-like foliage remains once the flowers have faded, adding structure to the garden. At the New York Botanical Garden, bearded irises can be found woven into several gardens including the Ladies' Border, Perennial Garden, and Rock Garden during the month of May.
Known as Provence roses, or cabbage roses, hybrid cultivars of Rosa × centifolia thrive in southeastern France, where they often bloom for six to eight weeks in the warmth of late spring and early summer. Provence roses are believed to have first appeared in the late sixteenth century as a cross between the rose "Autumn Damask" and an alba rose. The large, globe-like flowers in shades of white and pink are notable for their fragrance and their many petals. In Van Gogh's 1890 paintings, it is easy to see why this flower is often referred to as the "hundred-petaled" rose. Both white and pink Provence roses were cultivated in New Amsterdam beginning with the arrival of the Dutch in the seventeenth century.
Today, these roses can be found blooming in the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden at the New York Botanical Garden in May and June. Other standout roses from Van Gogh's time that can be found here include the musk rose (Rosa moschata), which dates to the Middle Ages and was likely grown in Provence when Van Gogh was there. Unusual varieties of tea roses that were developed by French rose hybridizers in Provence and Côte d'Azur will also bloom continuously from June through fall's first frost.