A practical guide for nutritional and traditional health care.
Iris florentina or Iris germanica
Florentine iris, also known as German iris, is basically a perennial plant having a broad rhizome. Florentine iris is commonly known as the orris root and is a species of the iris family that is indigenous to Italy. This plant has a straight flowering stem that grows up to a height of 60 cm (two feet) and bears leaves that are typically sword/ lance shaped. The plant produces big flowers that generally appear in pairs at the apex of the stem during the period between early to the middle of summer. The petals are white hued having a light lilac trace and a yellowish ‘beard' or untainted white.
The Florentine iris plant releases an aroma akin to violet. The rhizome-like root of the plant has a resemblance to ginger that has an odor similar to that of potato. The rhizome can be used to produce a creamy, waxy substance through a process known as steam distillation. This substance is known as orris butter. The rhizome of Florentine iris also yields an essential oil. In effect, the roots as well as the oil of Iris florentina have been used for remedial purposes for several centuries.
The plant is related to Greek mythology. According to Greek mythology, Iris was the goddess of the multicolored rainbow. The name of the goddess was selected to identify the family of this plant with a view to mirror the changeable hues of its flowers. It is interesting to note that iris was also the emblem of a number of French monarchs, counting Charlemagne and Louis VII and IX. Eventually, the family of this plant came to be known as fleur de luce or fleur de lys - a deformation of the term fleur de Louis. Incidentally, the white Florentine iris was cultivated for the first time in the Florence city during the Middle Ages and even to this day, one may see the flower on the old heraldic arms of this city.
The actual worth of the plants in the iris species is in the distinct violet fragrance that develops when the rootstock is dried. Generally available in the form of a powder, the root eventually came to be known as orris - a deformation of the term iris. Ever since the times of the ancient Egyptians, orris has been widely used as a perfume. During the later part of the 15th century, a blend of powdered orris and anise was used to scent linen. Then again, in the 18th century, the sweet scented orris was used as a principal element in cosmetic hair powders that were essential to sustain the decorated hairstyles prevailing at that time.
The rhizome-like root of orris encloses unsteady or volatile oil that works as an important fixative in perfumery and helps to stabilize the scent of potpourris. In addition, the powdered form of orris root is a wonderful dry shampoo and can be used as a talcum powder too.
The rhizome-like root of florentine iris or orris has been used traditionally since several centuries to treat a number of medical conditions. There was a time when orris root was used therapeutically for chest problems. The juice extracted from the orris root was believed to be very effective, but somewhat violent and purgative. Contemporary herbal medicine rarely uses orris.
In addition to herbal medicine, the extracts from the florentine iris plant also have a long history of use in homeopathy. The essential oil obtained from orris root was frequently employed for treating dropsy, also known as edema, or swelling caused by excessive accumulation of water in the body. The dried root of orris is believed to posses diuretic as well as expectorant properties. In addition, the roots may be used internally to cure coughs and diarrhea.
Earlier, the orris root was also used as a cosmetic and for getting rid of freckles or blotches. Actually, the orris root is excellent for the skin - it helps to lessen wrinkles as well as enhance the hydration and elasticity of the skin. When applied topically, the orris root is believed to facilitate the healing of wounds too. There are other health benefits of using Iris florentina and they include treating digestive, bronchial, liver and kidney ailments. In the past, people often used the bleached rhizomes of Iris florentina to alleviate the teething problems, especially pain, suffered by infants. In addition, people also prepared a sort of snuff with the bleached rhizomes for easing headaches caused by sinuses.
Besides, the numerous products enclosing Iris florentina, one can also buy the orris root in the form of tablets, powder as well as chopped form. Although orris root is considered to be safe for use by majority of individuals, the leaves as well as the rhizomes of this plant enclose an irritating substance that may result in skin irritations or allergies in some individuals. In addition, the juice of the fresh plant or root may lead to acute irritation of the mouth, vomiting, stomach aches and even bloody diarrhea.
The freshly obtained root of Iris florentina is a potent cathartic and, hence, its juice is used to treat dropsy. It may be noted that the orris root is primarily used in its dry form and is said to excellent for treating the problems of the lungs, for coughs as well as hoarseness. However, currently it is valued more for the appeal of the root of the plant's aroma, which has similarity with violet, than any other use.
The freshly obtained roots of Iris florentina have a worldly scent and the typical violet perfume develops gradually while the orris is in the drying process. It takes almost to years for the dried orris root to attain the utmost violet perfume and it continues to intensify even after this period. Since the orris root has a gradually intensifying pleasant aroma, the essential oil extracted from it may be included in the category of supposed ‘ferment-oils'.
It is very difficult to distinguish the rhizomes of I. Florentina, I. Germanica and I. pallida since they resemble each other so intimately. All these rhizomes have contractions at intervals of approximately two inches and this is an indication of the limit of the annual growth in each case.
The rhizomes of Iris florentina are extremely pungent when they are fresh and when you chew them; it stimulates a pungent taste in the mouth that remains of a few hours. Interestingly enough, the rhizomes lose this pungent flavour when they are dried. When dried, the rhizomes have a somewhat bitter taste and the smell is also not disgusting and gradually they start acquiring the violet fragrance. It may be noted that though the fresh rhizomes are acrid when fresh, they virtually do not have any smell at this stage. It is believed that the rhizomes lose the pungency owing to the evaporation of a volatile acrid principle when the rhizome goes through the drying process.
The orris root was held in high esteem by the Greeks and Romans for the rhizome's cosmetic value and perfume. Even to this day, orris root is used as an ingredient in a number of soaps and perfumes. In addition, orris root is also used in potpourri and the essential oil extracted from it combines excellently with other fragrances, such as cassis, rose, lavender and bergamot.
It may be mentioned that dried rhizomes of Iris florentina are also employed to clean up as well as scent linen closets. However, one major disadvantage of obtaining the violet scent from the orris root is the fact that it takes anything between three and five years of drying the rhizome before they develop its maximum aroma.
Habitat and cultivation
The species Iris florentine is indigenous to the southern regions Europe, particularly Italy. Over the centuries, this plant has been naturalized in several parts of the world, including central Europe, Iran and the northern regions of India. This plant is found growing naturally on mountainous or undulating slopes where the climatic conditions are sunny. In many regions of the world, especially in Italy, this plant is cultivated for commercial use.
Florentine iris is usually propagated by the root division method. The divided roots ought to be planted in the later part of spring or early autumn in deep, fertile soil that does not hold moisture. This plant needs a warm and sheltered location and cannot endure heavy clay soils.
Chemical analysis of the root of Florentine iris has revealed that it encloses large quantities of starch, a small proportion of a crystalline and volatile substance, a soft, brownish and acrid (pungent) resin and a small amount of tannin that transforms into a green color when reacted with ferric (iron) salts.
Collection and harvesting
Usually the rhizome-like roots of the Iris florentina plant are excavated in the later part of summer, peeled and subsequently dried up till they become crumbly in appearance. When the orris root becomes completely dry, it can easily be pulverized into a powder and used as for seasoning foodstuff. In effect, the butter as well as the extract of Iris florentina roots are found in an assortment of beverages, baked goods, gelatines and even chewing gum. In addition, orris root is also present in toothpastes and breath fresheners.
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