Fleur-de-lis: The National flower of France isn’t what you think it is!

You may know the fleur-de-lis as the national flower of France. But what does it mean, which flower is it, and where did it come from?

By Annie André ⦿ updated January 10, 2024  
blue shield with golden fleur de lys and gold crown sitting on shield
blue shield with golden fleur de lys and gold crown sitting on shield

Before the fleur de Lis became the national flower of France, it was the emblem used by French royalty for centuries. But why? What does it mean? What is it, and where did it come from?

The fleur-de-lis is a “symbol” that predates France.

King Louis XIV: Fleur de lis

What is the fleur-de-lis?

Long before the fleur-de-lis became the national flower of France, it was both a religious symbol of the Catholic church and a royal symbol in France.

  • French kings and the French monarchy used the fleur-de-lis on flags, clothing, crowns, staffs, coat of arms, and decorative elements in architecture and art.
  • The catholic church has used the three petals of the fleur-de-lis to symbolize the holy trinity (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) and the theological virtues (faith, hope and charity). 

And although today most people think of France when they see the fleur de Lis symbol, how the fleur-de-lis became a symbol of French royalty has been hotly debated for centuries.

There’s plenty of speculation and lore, but sorting fact and fiction from history is difficult, considering stories were passed by word of mouth, and there are gaps in written records. 

What is known is that this mysterious symbol was also used as a royal and or religious symbol by many ancient civilizations and cultures that predate France by thousands of years. It’s even been linked to Mesopotamia and the Sumerian civilization, the oldest civilization known to mankind.

  • For the ancient Sumerians, the fleur-de-lis symbolized the Sumerian trinity, similar to the catholic trinity.
  • It was also an ornamental feature for royalty that represented Nimrod, Semiramis, and Tammuz.
  • It also appeared on Greek and Roman coins, Egyptian bas-reliefs, Mycenean potteries of ancient Greece, Sassanid textiles of Iran, Japanese emblems and Dogon totems.

But we won’t get into that. 

You want to know how this mysterious symbol is tied to France and the meaning of fleur-de-lis. 

So let’s jump in. 

Which flower is the (fleur-de-lis) emblem and the national flower of France based on?

France’s Fleur-de-lis symbol or emblem sometimes spelled Fleur-de-Lys or fleur-de-luce, is supposedly a stylized flower design of a natural flower with three petals attached at the base.

There always seems to be some confusion about whether the flower represented on the fleur-de-lis symbol is an iris or a lily. 

Take a look at the photo below. On the left is a yellow Iris, and on the right is a white Lily. 

the national flower on the fleur de lis is an Iris, not a lily as the name suggests

The confusion has a lot to do with the emblem’s name, which contains the word “Lys” or “Lis,” the French word for Lily.

Meaning of fleur-de-lis:

Fleur-de-lis means “Flower of the lily” in English, aka”Lily Flower,” but the flower of the Lily doesn’t quite look like the emblem, does it? 

The national emblem of France: is it the iris or the lily flower?

Even though the French name fleur-de-lis means “Lilly,” many historians believe the inspiration for the golden flower on the fleur-de-lis emblem is most likely a yellow Iris (species: Iris pseudacorus), also known as marsh iris, yellow flag, flag iris, and the water flag in English.

“The Fleur-de-lis is most likely based on the Yellow Iris”

As Juliette said in Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? The name of a thing doesn’t matter as much as the quality of the thing.”

In this case, the physical qualities of the “fleur-de-lis” emblem’s three-petal design and typical golden colour look more like a golden iris than a lily. 

yellow iris and yellow lily with the fleur de lys

  • The Iris’s three central petals (called standards) stand straight up and meet at the top. The three outer sepals (called falls) droop downward away from the center. If held correctly, only the two outer petals on the left and right can be seen clearly, like the fleur-de-lis emblem. 
  • The Lily has six petals that curve out symmetrical, and no matter which way you hold it, it looks nothing like the fleur-de-lis. 

Why call an iris a lily? 

3 flowers called lilies despite not being true lilies

Historically, the names Iris and Lily have been used interchangeably, causing confusion about which flower was the original fleur-de-lis/lys. 

But it’s not just the fleur-de-lis. 

There are lots of flowers called lilies that are not part of the Liliaceae family, genus Lilium. In other words, not all flowers called lilies are true lilies. 

There are roughly 100 flowers called lilies that are not lilies (see the list.) Here are a few examples.

  • Calla lilies, which are not true lilies, belong to the Arum family of plants and the genus Zantedeschia. 
  • Blackberry lily, also not a true lily, is an ornamental plant in the family Iridaceae, the Iris family. In 2005 scientists renamed the blackberry lily Iris Domestica to reflect what they learned about its DNA. 
  • The fortnight lily is actually an Iris and is also known as the African Iris in the Dietes iridoides family. 
  • Red blood lily is in the family of Amaryllidaceae.

The fleur-de-lis emblem could be in reference to the Lis / Lys river

Iris Marsh

Regarding the name fleur-de-lis, the reference to the word Lis or Lys is probably in reference to the Lys river that runs through France and Belgium. 

According to Pierre-Augustin Boissier de Sauvages (1710-1795), an influential French naturalist and lexicographer, the Franks lived near a marshy river from Pas de Calais in northern France to Ghent, Belgium. 

In the West Germanic language (5th to 9th century), the Franks called this river “lis,” but today, it’s known as Lys in French or Leie in Flemish / Dutch. The Dutch name for the river, Leie, comes from Old Dutch of Celtic origins meaning to flow or flowing. 

River Lys or Leie: River that runs from France to Belgium

A yellow iris grew along these river wetlands, which the Franks called “Lisbloem.” Bleom was the Frankish word for flower. 

Lisbloem (old Frankish word for “Flower of the lis river”

Pierre-Augustin said that the old descriptions of “Lisbloem” (flower of the Lis river) resemble a yellow Iris because of its shape, bright-coloured flowers and the marsh habitat. 

Over time, due to semantic shifts or semantic changes, the word Bloem changed so much that today, the modern meaning of “Lisbloem has a radically different meaning. “Lisbloem” no longer means “flower of the Lis” river. 

definition of Lisbloem in Dutch

  • In Dutch, which is a descendant and the closest to the Frankish language today, the word for Iris flower is still “Lisbloem.”
  • In German, it’s Lieschblume, but Liesch was also spelled Lies and Leys in the Middle Ages.
  • In French and English, there is a direct link to the word for flower, “fleur,” and “Bloem.”

In a world of changing spelling and evolving languages, it’s easy to imagine how Lisbloem or Lieschblum became fleur-de-luce, fleur-de-lis, and fleur-de-lys. 

More evidence that the fleur de Lys is a yellow Iris and not a lily is that both the flag and the emblem of  Brussels (the capital of Belgium) depict the Iris pseudacorus (yellow Iris). 

The yellow Iris is also native to Europe, while the Lily is not. 

So how did the Fleur-de-lys symbol become associated with French kings? 

Why did French kings adopt the Fleur-de-lys as their emblem?

Here are two legends that stand out about Clovis (466-511), king of the Franks and the first king of France before it was France, which links the yellow Iris with the French coat of arms.

King Clovis adopted the yellow flower as his symbol

1 ) In one legend, the fleur de Lis emblem may have been introduced around the 9th century when Clovis fought and won the battle of Vouillé (507) near Poitiers. 

Per this legend, Clovis and his army were trapped along the banks of the river Lis, but Clovis spotted a group of wild yellow flowers, “Lisbloem.” Because the yellow Iris grew in shallow waters, they knew they could safely cross, which resulted in Clovis’s army defeating the Goths.  

Clovis then chose the yellow Iris as his symbol. 

2 ) Another legend says that yellow flowers magically formed a path for Clovis and his army on his way to the battle, which allowed them to cross the river safely and win his crusade. 

In both versions of the legend, this is why Clovis adopted the wild yellow flower as his symbol.

All kings later adopted the yellow flower as their symbol

After Clovis adopted this wild golden flower, “Lisbloem,” as his emblem, all his successors chose it as their royal emblem, eventually becoming France’s unofficial national flower. 

  • King Louis VII of France loved the emblem and wore a blue robe with gold “fleur de Lis” on his coronation.
  • King Louis, the XIV, also wore a blue robe embroidered with a golden royal fleur de Lis pattern for many portraits.
  • Joan of Arc carried a white banner that featured the fleur-de-lis when she fought in the war against England.
  • The province of Québec Canada, pays tribute to its French roots with its fleur-de-lis flag, “Fleurdelisé.” Quebec was once a part of nouveau France (New France), the area colonized by France in North America.

Fleurdelisé Quebec flag with 4 fleur de lis and a white cross

The Fleur de Lis meaning today

Eat king cake in France for the new year: les gallettes des rois

The French monarch and the French throne are long gone, but you can easily find the fleur de Lis symbol in almost every part of the world as a decorative element on clothing,  jewelry, fence posts, tattoo designs and more.

It’s also one of the symbols of Mardi gras, especially in New Orleans. The boy scouts use the fleur-de-lis design for their scouting organization too. 

The national flower of France emblem even adorns the golden paper crown you get when you buy a king cake (galette des rois) for three kings day (Epiphany).

Wrapping up the Fleur de Lis, France’s unofficial national flower!

Where did the mysterious fleur de Lis motif come from, and why has it been so popular in so many cultures for thousands of years? 

We may never know, and scholars will probably never agree.

Some historians think that the fleur de Lis is not a flower at all and could be a trident, an arrowhead, a bee, the head of a lance, a sceptre, and even a frog. 

Whatever “IT” is, the one thing we know for sure is that it’s been used as an ornament, symbol and emblem by almost all civilizations in the old and new world, whether for religion, fashion or nobility. 

The fleur de Lis is pretty too!

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a 'petite commission' at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase through my links. It helps me buy more wine and cheese. Please read my disclosure for more info.

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Annie André

Annie André

About the author

I'm Annie André, a bilingual North American with Thai and French Canadian roots. I've lived in France since 2011. When I'm not eating cheese, drinking wine or hanging out with my husband and children, I write articles on my personal blog annieandre.com for intellectually curious people interested in all things France: Life in France, travel to France, French culture, French language, travel and more.


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