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Iris root

Latin Names: Iris florentina; Iris germanica; Iris pallida; Iris spp.

Other Names: Susan (Iris), Irsa (Orris root) – Arabic; Susan (Iris), Zanbaq (Orris root) – Persian; Fleur de Luce (French); Flag (generic English term for Irises – Yellow Flag, Sweet Flag, etc…)

Taxonomy: Vegetable Kingdom; Iridaceae (Iris family)

Part Used: Dried and aged rootstock; juice of the fresh root; essential oil of the dried root.

Basic Qualities: Hot and Dry, both in the last phase of the second degree (Avicenna)

Other Qualities: Toning, cleansing and purifying, dissolving and attenuating, maturative, loosening and sedative.

Taste: Very aromatic; slightly bitter, sweet, acrid and pungent.

Humoral Dynamics: Being quite heating and drying in temperament, Orris root is quite loosening and attenuating in nature, as well as cleansing and detoxifying, exerting most of its action on reducing superfluous accumulations of phlegm and serous fluids. On Blood or the Sanguine humor, Orris root acts as an emmenagogue to stimulate the menstrual flow. On the Melancholic humor, Orris root has a loosening, relaxing and sedative action, relieving nervous tension in the stomach, liver and bowels, as well as in the lungs and chest.

Tropism: The lungs, throat and chest; the stomach, liver and bowels; the uterus and female reproductive system; the skin; the blood, lymph and serous fluids.

Constituents and Pharmacology: The chief constituent of Orris root is the Oil of Orris, also known as Orris Butter, which constitutes about 0.1 to 0.2 percent of the dried root; it is a yellowish white, semisolid mass, consisting of about 85 percent odorless myristic acid, which can be extracted from the fatty Orris butter by steam distillation. The other constituents of Orris root are fat, resin, a large quantity of starch, mucilage, a bitter principle and a glucoside named Iridin. The aromatic constituent of Orris root is a liquid ketone named Irone, which gives the dried, aged root its characteristic violet like odor.

Medicinal Properties: Antispasmodic, aperient, aromatic, attenuant, carminative, detoxicant, diuretic, emetic, emmenagogue, expectorant, fixative, laxative, pectoral, purgative, sedative.

Cautions and Contraindications: In its fresh form and fresh juice, Orris root can be quite a strong purgative, so caution and medical supervision are advised when taking Orris root in this form. Usually, the dried form of Orris root is taken, for which Mrs. M. Grieve recommends a dose of anywhere from 5 to 15 grains (about .3 to .9 grams) to be taken internally. Doses larger than this are said to be purgative and/or emetic, and can cause intestinal colic.

Medicinal Uses: The juice of the fresh Orris root is said to be one of the finest natural remedies known for dropsy or edema, which is fluid retention. The finely powdered Orris root can be inhaled as snuff in pinch sized doses to provoke sneezing and thereby cleanse the head and sinuses. A decoction of Orris root attenuates and loosens up phlegm in the chest, lungs and throat for easy expectoration, and will soothe a sore throat and pacify coughing. Taken internally in small doses, Orris root will relieve congestion and sluggishness in the liver, have a carminative effect on the stomach and digestion, have a relaxing aperient laxative effect on the bowels, and will act as an emmenagogue to stimulate a sluggish or suppressed menstrual flow. Avicenna recommends the external use of a boiled down decoction of the Orris root to treat and aid the maturation of chronic, hard swellings of the lymph glands and acne. He also recommends a concentrated decoction of the Iris leaves as a topical treatment for skin ulcers, preferably in conjunction with Rose oil. Avicenna also regards poultices of Orris root as a valuable antispasmodic in convulsed, spasmed muscles, and recommends an enema of Orris root to relieve pain and tenderness of the sciatic nerve.

Other Uses: Although Orris root is not used medicinally very much anymore, it does have other uses, chiefly in natural aromatics and perfumery, as well as in cosmetics.  Orris root is very aromatic, having a pleasant fragrance that strongly resembles that of violets; but for the root to yield its precious fragrance, it must be thoroughly dried and then aged for at least three years.  Orris root is known as a fixative, or an aromatic ingredient that strengthens or enhances the fragrance of other aromatic herbs and spices, and prolongs their staying power.  And so, it is a common fixative ingredient in herbal potpourris and sachets.  Having a violet-like scent, Orris root is a cheaper substitute for the essential oil of Violets in natural perfumery.  In his Canon of Medicine, Avicenna recommends an external wash made from a decoction of Orris root as a beautifier of the skin which removes wrinkles.  He also recommends Orris root, either by itself or in combination with Hellebore, to remove freckles and pigmented spots.

Preparation and Dosage: Topically or externally, Orris root may be used freely, even in large doses, decocted as an external wash, or in poultices of the fresh root or leaves. But internally, the standard dose is from 5 to 15 grains, or about .3 to .9 grams. This is usually taken in powder form; an instant infusion of the powdered root boiled for 1 to 5 minutes in a cup to half a cup of hot water or wine can also be taken as a dose. Orris root can also be prepared and taken as an alcoholic tincture, in standard doses.

Herbal Formulation:

Classic Combinations:

Description: Irises are cultivated the world over for the beauty of their flowers, but few suspect that their roots can be used medicinally as well.  In fact, many species of Iris and other genuses closely related to it have valuable medicinal properties, and the common English name for Irises and Iris-like medicinal plants among herbalists is Flag.  And so, you have Blue Flag, Sweet Flag and Yellow Flag – all medicinal plants that are Irises or close relatives thereof, in the herbal materia medica.  Irises like to grow in damp, marshy soil, or by the side of a lake, so many Flags and Irises have diuretic properties that help the body throw off excess fluids and dampness.  In addition, many Flags or Irises have strong blood cleansing and detoxifying properties that concoct or resist toxins in the body.  The basic Iris root that is used medicinally, which herbalists call Orris root, comes from the rootstock of three closely related species of Iris that can all be used interchangeably:  Iris florentina, Iris germanica, and Iris pallida.

Although Orris root has fallen out of favor with many herbalists these days, it is still a valuable medicinal herb.  Orris root is much better known and used as an herbal aromatic and fixative in making natural perfumes, sachets and potpourris than it is as` a medicine.  For those who are into the magickal use of herbs, the sweet, violet-like scent of Orris root has a Venusian energy.  When the fresh root is dried, however, it has virtually no aroma; it must age for at least three years before the exquisite, violet-like aroma is developed to the fullest.  Nevertheless, the fresh root can be juiced and the juice used medicinally, as one of the finest remedies for dropsy or edema in the herbal kingdom.  The dried root can also be taken internally for coughs and lung congestion, and to help in the expectoration of excess phlegm in the lungs, throat and chest, since the strongly warming and drying qualities of the root give it an anti-Phlegmatic action.  Orris root is also a fine emmenagogue that will stimulate the menstrual flow if it is blocked or suppressed. 

Orris root, and other Irises and Iris-like plants related to it, tend to be on the potent side, so care is required in the proper dosing.  The basic form of Orris root that is used medicinally, and also in aromatics and perfumery, is the powdered form of the dried, aged root.  Mrs. M. Grieve, in her Modern Herbal, recommends 5 to 15 grains, or about .3 to .9 grams, as the standard internal dose.  This can either be taken as a powder and washed down with water, or it can be boiled or simmered for a few minutes in a wineglassful of water or wine.  The finely ground Orris root can also be taken in pinch-sized doses as snuff, in which case it will provoke sneezing and cleanse the head and sinuses of excess fluids and phlegm.  Orris root is also a valuable alterative or blood cleanser, and its detoxifying action is shared by many other Flags or Irises, which cleanse the liver and spleen, gently stimulate bowel movements and relieve sluggishness and congestion in the liver and bowels.

Related Species: A few different species of Iris or Iris-like plants, generically called Flags, are used medicinally by herbalists, and have important and esteemed places in the herbal materia medica.  I will discuss the most important of these below:

Sweet Flag (Acorus calamus) is more commonly known as Calamus root.  It is one of the most effective stomach remedies known, and is particularly efficacious for hyperacidity and acid reflux; just chew a few pieces of the dried root.  It stimulates the stomach and digestion and the concoction of the Four Humors, dissolves and disperses excess phlegm and dampness, both in the stomach as well as in the head and sinuses, and has a mildly sedating effect.  It also has an antispasmodic effect that can even stop convulsions, and is useful in detoxifying the organism and getting rid of toxins and turbid phlegm and dampness.  So remarkable is the detoxifying action of Calamus root that the medieval French apothecary – seer Nostradamus even used it as a key ingredient in his Rose Pills, which he used as a remedy against the Bubonic Plague with considerable success.  Like its botanical cousin Orris root, Calamus root can be finely powdered and used as a snuff to clear the head and sinuses; large doses of it will also have an emetic effect and provoke vomiting.  Like Orris root, Calamus root is also strongly aromatic, and is used as a fixative in natural aromatics and perfumery, although its fragrance is not quite as sweet and pleasant as that of Orris root.

Blue Flag (Iris versicolor) is an indigenous American species of Iris that was a favorite remedy of the old Eclectic herbalists of the nineteenth century.  Although taken internally in small doses, and in alcoholic tinctures, in doses similar to that used for Orris root, Blue Flag was considered a very effective remedy for a sluggish, torpid liver and bowels, and much safer and less irritating than the then commonly used American Mandrake, also known as Mayapple or Podophyllin.  It was also considered to be a great remedy for chronic gastroenteritis, and chronic ulceration of the bowels and duodenum.  Blue Flag is also a gentle aperient laxative, and chewing a piece or two of the dried root and then swallowing it will often provoke a very smooth and natural bowel movement.  Blue Flag was also considered to be a valuable alterative or blood cleanser, particularly useful in chronic skin disorders, and in scrofula and swollen lymph glands.  Blue Flag is a sovereign remedy in constipation and bilious disorders of the liver.  Like Orris root, Blue Flag is considered to be a valuable remedy in dropsy or edema. 

Yellow Flag (Iris pseudacorus) gets its common English name from the bright yellow flowers that it puts forth; it gets its Latin species name from the resemblance of its root to that of Calamus root.  Although it is now seldom used, due to its acridity and its powerful cathartic action, it was formerly held in high esteem by old English herbalists like Gerard, who said that it “doth mightily and vehemently draw forth choler”.  Yellow Flag was also held to be a powerful remedy against obstinate coughs, “evil spleens”, convulsions, dropsies and serpents’ bites.  An infusion of the dried root has been found to be effective in checking diarrhea, and in treating dysmenorrhea and leucorrhea.  Gerard considered the topical application of the Yellow Flag root, boiled soft, to be a great remover of the black and blue spots of bruising.

Sources: The Canon of Medicine by Avicenna, translated and compiled by Laleh Bakhtiar, pp. 578 - 585. @2012 by Laleh Bakhtiar, Published by Great Books of the Islamic World, Inc., Distributed by Kazi Publications.

A Modern Herbal, Vol. II by Mrs. M. Grieve, pp. 434 – 440.  @1971 by Dover Publications, New York, NY.  Originally published by Harcourt, Brace and Company in 1931.

DISCLAIMER:  The information in this article is for educational purposes only, for general health maintenance and prevention, and is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical disease or condition. The reader assumes all personal responsibility and liability for the application of the information contained in this article, and is advised to seek the services of a physician or licensed healthcare practitioner should his or her symptoms or condition persist or worsen.