Notes from Diane's Garden

Or The Curious Lore and Magical Property of Plants
By Diane Fenster

July, 1987: Iris

I would like to start out this month's notes with a dedication of these writings to Jo Steen, my dear friend and first Craft teacher who has always helped me to see the "magic in everyday life."

From the 2nd to the 9th of June, I vacationed in the New England area and got to see a lot of East Coast gardens that were just coming into the fullness of early summer. How different from Calufornia, whose gardens and wildflowers have finished their peak display. The flower that seemed most prevalent in these East Coast gardens, no matter how small, was the Iris. Its colorful blooms were everywhere, even as garden escapees by the side of the road. So it seemed fitting to choose the Iris as this month's topic.

The iris was considered a symbol of power by the ancient Egyptians and was placed on the brow of the Sphinx. It was also placed on the scepters of rulers and kings because the three large petals of the flower symbolized faith, wisdom, and valor. The flower was named after Iris, the Greeek Goddess of rainbows, who was the messenger of Zeus and Hera. The na,e Iris is applied to a plant whose different species produce a number of different kinds and colors of flowers, hence its comparison to the rainbow, The Greeks planted irises on the graves of women because one of the duties of Iris was to lead the souls of dead women to the Elysian Fields. I think it could be surmised from this that irises would be appropriate flowers to use in a ritual offering for women who have died.

Medicinal Properties: The chief economic and herbal use of the iris is for the production of Orris Root powder, which is obtained from the three following species. They are flag irises and as such have fleshy, creeping rootstock. (Irises don't stay put where you plant them; their roots are always extending out and they twist into unexpected places.) Orris root powder is used for its lovely violet scent in perfumes and powers, and also as a fixative for potpourris. It is only upon drying (2 years at least) that these rhizomes develop their characteristic fragrance.

Iris Germanica: This is the most common garden bearded iris that people are familiar with. It is a native of southern Europe. The nursery varieties as they now exist are compounds of many species and varieties, since hybridization has been carried on for many years. The juice of the fresh root of this iris when bruised with wine are used as a strong purge in the treatment of dropsy. Old herbalists say that if the dropsy can be cured by the hand of man, this root will effect the cure. The juice is also used as a cosmetic and for the removal of freckles from the skin.

Iris Pallida: A native of eastern Mediterranean countries that has sweet-scented blue flowers. It also yields orris root.

Iris Florentina: Also known as White Flower de Luce or Flower de Luce of Florence. It has large white flowers tinged with lavender. The fresh root is a powerful cathartic. It is from this species that the finest orris root is obtained.

Orris powder is rarely used in herbalism at the present time. But the fresh root possesses diuretic, emetic, and cathartic properties. Given in large doses, it causes nausea, vomiting, purging, and colic. It was used in the treatment of bronchitis and chronic diarrhea. The dried powder was used as a snuff and was used to relieve cases of congested headache.

Oil of Orris is obtained by steam distillation of the powder and has a very delicate odor of fresh violets. It is blended with the artificial violet perfumes to make them more subtle. Powdered orris was put into the rinse water of linens to scent them. Orris was used to give a particular flavor to brandies made in England. The root is used to flavor a drink of honey and ginger sold in Russia, The root of the Verona Iris was shaped for infants' use in teething.

Mount Bubba has many different kinds of Iris growing. The most recent addition is the Florentine Iris spoken of previously. It was obtained during a field trip with Valerie and Ron to Saso's Herb Farm in Saratoga. They have a beautiful herbal display garden there and I highly recommend a visit.


The Prime Mover of the Universe