This week we decided to talk about the most royal flower of all – iris. The irises mythology dates back to Ancient Greece, when the goddess Iris, who personified the rainbow (the Greek word for iris), acted as the link between heaven and earth. It’s said that purple irises were planted over the graves of women to summon the goddess Iris to guide them in their journey to heaven. Irises became linked to the French monarchy during the Middle Ages, eventually being recognized as their national symbol, the fleur-de-lis.
The iris is often associated with royalty and it’s no wonder. This regal flower puts on quite a show in the garden in early to mid-summer. It’s stately blooms range in color from traditional shades of purple and blue to yellow, white, pink, red, chartreuse, brown and nearly black so there really is an iris that will fit any occasion.Iris is both the common and scientific name for these impressive flowers. There are 325 species and 50,000 registered varieties of irises. These flowers are typically divided into two groups, bearded iris and beardless irises, which include Japanese and Siberian irises. They range from towering flowers of five feet or more to tiny dwarfs less than eight inches tall.
The bearded iris looks like it has a tiny beard, as the “falls” (the lower petals that droop down) are fuzzy. Beardless irises lack the fuzzy appearance. Irises reproduce via swollen roots. While the bearded iris produces a plump tuber, called a rhizome that looks like an oblong potato, others produce small bulbs. Wild irises, typically blue or purple, grow throughout the United States and are often referred to as blue flag. These irises resemble the Siberian Iris. Florist irises are typically blue or purple and are used as accents in floral bouquets.
Irises are also used in medicine – rhizomes of the German Iris (I. germanica) and Sweet Iris (I. pallida) are traded as orris root and are used in perfume and medicine, though more common in ancient times than today. The roots of the iris plant have been used medicinally to treat skin infections, syphilis, stomach problems and dropsy. Today the roots are still used to purge the liver. Some alternative medicine uses include using yellow iris to treat dandruff and white iris to treat asthma and bronchitis, as well as use as a diuretic. Iris essential oil (absolute) from flowers are sometimes used in aromatherapy as sedative medicines. The dried rhizomes are also given whole to babies to help in teething. Gin brands such as Bombay Sapphire and Magellan Gin use orris root and sometimes iris flowers for flavor and color.
For orris root production, iris rhizomes are harvested, dried, and aged for up to 5 years. In this time, the fats and oils inside the roots undergo degradation and oxidation, which produces many fragrant compounds that are valuable in perfumery. The scent is said to be similar to violets. The aged rhizomes are steam-distilled which produces a thick oily compound, known in the perfume industry as “iris butter” or orris oil.