Wild Iris – Iris Setosa

Alaska Wildflowers | Purple

The purple flowers of the beachhead iris, also commonly known as the wild iris.

beachhead iris (wild iris)

Iris setosa

Common Names

beachhead iris*
wild iris

Alaska iris
beach-head iris
bristle-pointed iris
arctic iris
blue flag
wild flag iris

*Beachhead iris is the only common name listed with ITIS and is the name given in most floras, including the Flora of North America. In Alaska, I have only ever heard it referred to as “wild iris,” possibly in part to that name being used in Verna Pratt’s Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers. The only place I encountered the name “Alaska iris” was in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility database. I only mention this because I found it amusing since many Alaskans like to use the preface “Alaska” with many flowers, no matter how widespread the distribution is. I’ve never heard an Alaskan call it that.


I. setosa ssp. interior
I. setosa var. interior
I. setosa var. setosa
I. setosa var. platyrhuncha


I. setosa var. hondoensis (Japan)
I. setosa var. nasuensis (Japan)
I. setosa var. canadensis (Canada – not recognized in ITIS – listed as a separate species, I. hookeri)

Genus: Iris
Family: Iridaceae
Order: Asparagales
full classification

Duration – Growth Habit

Perennial – Forb/herb

Identification and Information

Iris setosa can grow up to 1 meter tall from shallow rhizomes. The rhizomes produce dense clumps with many branches. The stems are round and have 1-3 branches of varying heights; the tallest stems will often be taller than the leaves. The green leaves are basal, long, lanceolate (lance-shaped with a tapered point), narrow, and grasslike. They can grow to 30-60 cm (12-24 inches) in length, are purplish at the base, and have darker veins.

The inflorescence has 2-3 flowers. The flower is deep violet to blue 6-10 cm (2.5-4 inches) across. It has two sets of 3 petals and a set of 3 smaller sepals.

The largest set is the outermost sepals, called falls, which are veined and often have a white and/or yellow center. The falls are glabrous with an abruptly attenuate base (narrow coming to a point – sometimes called the claw) while the outermost part is somewhat obovate.

The middle set of petals is smaller than the sepals, reaching just beyond the much narrower part of the sepals, directly above them. These are not true petals but the petaloid style branches (or style arms or style column) of the flower. They are tongue-shaped, often darkest in the center and lighter or nearly white on the outside edges. The floral tube (perianth) is 0.7-1 cm long. The innermost set of petals is much smaller, narrow, and upright, almost bristle-like, called the standard.

The 2 cm stamens are appressed to the underside of the slightly longer style branches (middle petals). The anthers are long and dark purple. The ovary is green and about 1 cm long (looks like a swollen section of the peduncle – the stalk supporting the flowers). The seed pod is divided into a 3-section cup with 3 brown seeds.


For information only (typically historical) – I take no responsibility for adverse effects from the use of any plant.

The whole plant is poisonous!

Irises are well known to be toxic and, because of their ornamental use, frequently make dogs and cats sick or die. They contain a variety of toxins, most notably iridin, a dangerous stomach irritant. The bulbs typically carry the highest concentration of the poison, but they can be found throughout the plant. The plant may also be irritating to the skin. Ingestion can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea and may cause bleeding in the stomach and small intestines. Poisoning is not typically fatal in humans and larger dogs but is particularly dangerous in smaller animals like cats or smaller dogs.

Iris setosa is frequently used as an ornamental flower and used to prevent erosion and revegetation projects. The flowers are used to make dyes. The Inupiat use these dyes to color grass-weaved baskets.

Traditionally, the Aleut used a decoction of the root of the beachhead iris as a laxative. The Inupiat used the plant as a poison on arrowheads. Native tribes in Alaska have used the roasted seeds to brew a coffee substitute.

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Distribution and Habitat

Iris setosa is native to Alaska (except north of the Brooks Range) and parts of Canada (mostly the coastal provinces except for Nunavut and Northwest Territories – these are thought to possibly be a subspecies, var. canadensis), and Maine. It can also be found in parts of Asia such as Siberia, China, Korea, and Japan. GBIF also includes instances in Scandinavia, but very few, and this is not supported by any other references I found, so I did not include them in the map (otherwise, on the Eurasian continent, they are not found west of central Siberia).

The Wild Iris tends to live in moist soil but is also found in drier or rocky soil. It is frequently found near lake shores, beachheads, bogs, and meadows. Its common name, “beachhead iris,” comes from the ability to live on beach dunes near salt water.

Photo of wild irises beside a lake in Alaska, which is a common habitat for the flowering plant.
The common waterfront habitat of the wild iris


RankScientific Name (Common Name)
KingdomPlantae (plantes, Planta, Vegetal, plants)
   SubkingdomViridiplantae (green plants)
      InfrakingdomStreptophyta (land plants)
            DivisionTracheophyta (vascular plants, tracheophytes)
               SubdivisionSpermatophytina (spermatophytes, seed plants, phanérogames)
                     SuperorderLilianae (monocots, monocotyledons, monocotylédones)
                              GenusIris L. (iris)
                                 SpeciesIris setosa Pall. ex Link (beachhead iris)

References and Further Reading


Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers, Pratt, Verna E. pg. 2

Classification and Taxonomy

Iris setosa Pall. ex Link Taxonomic Serial No.: 43195, ITIS Database


Toxicology Answer: Don’t Eat the Lovely Iris, ACEP Now: The Official Voice of Emergency Medicine

Iris setosa Pallas ex Link Common names: Beachhead Iris, Native American Ethnobotany Database

Map and Distribution

Iris setosa Pall. ex Link Published in: Jahrb. Gewächsk. ((1820)), GBIF Database

Description and Information

Iris setosa Pallas ex Link Jahrb. Gewächsk. 1(3): 71. 1820., Flora of North America

Knik Germplasm wild iris Iris setosa Selected Class Release “Natural”, State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources Division of Agriculture

Iris Flowers: Terminology and Structure, Elizabeth’s Wildflower Blog (not specific to I. setosa but has great descriptions and labeled photos)


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