Sunday, June 7, 2015

Plant Story -- Iris, All the Colors of the Rainbow

Iris is a common garden plant all around the world.


The genus Iris, in the iris family, Iridaceae, has about 280 species, distributed all around the Northern Hemisphere, from Alaska eastward to Japan. People have been attracted to iris for a very long time--Pharoh Thutmose III had irises that he brought back from his conquest of Syria (1479 BC) painted on his tomb. 


The name iris is from the Greeks. Iris was the goddess of the rainbow in Greek mythology. It was her job to take the souls of dead women to the Elysian Fields. She further brought messages from the gods to people on earth, traveling down the rainbow. Juno, queen of the gods, was impressed by Iris' diligence and virtue (not the least because Iris repulsed Jupiter's advances) and created the iris plant to reflect the goddess on earth. People in their daily routine would see irises and think of the goddess of the rainbow. Juno created iris plants in all the colors of the rainbow. Wherever Iris walked on earth, iris flowers sprang up.


Most plant groups have flowers in several but not all the colors. Iris are unusual in really having red, orange, yellow, blue and purple flowers. A few are even green or nearly (link). The problem with green is that a flower is advertising for pollinators such as bees or butterflies to come to it. Green flowers against green leaves are not very conspicuous. If people want green flowers, usually plant breeders can eliminate other colors, leaving green. Irises also occur in white, black (link), brown and multiple colors, going beyond the rainbow.



European irises, Iris x germanicaIris x florentina and Iris pallida (the x means the experts think these are not naturally-occurring species but hybrids), the German and Florentine irises, were used medicinally in classical and medieval Europe. In the 1200s, Dominicans in Florence promoted the use of dried iris rhizomes, called orris root. (Rhizomes are below ground stems and orris root is made from rhizomes, so "root" is technically incorrect. Plants have three organs, roots, stems and leaves, and the structure of an underground stem is different from that of a root). Dried rhizomes of European iris had been used earlier, but this was the beginning of the current tradition. Orris root is produced by drying iris rhizomes for at least a year. During that time chemical changes inside the rhizome create new compounds that not only smell nice, but more important, enhance the smell or taste of things with which powdered orris root is blended. Thus, orris root has been added to potpouri and sachets, wine, beer and gin and a variety of cosmetics. There remains a small orris root industry link.

The inflated brown "roots" at the base of the green
stems are the rhizomes that produce orris root.
Elsewhere in the world, often irises are more toxic. Iris versicolor, the blue flag of the eastern U.S., was considered poisonous by Native Americans and used, if needed, as a purgative and cathartic (meaning, it opens the bowels). Iris missouriensis, the Rocky Mountain iris, was used as an emetic (to induce vomiting) by people from the Zuni in the southwest to the Klamath in the northwest, as well as being applied externally for various ailments. 

blue flag iris
Blue flag

Be sure to enjoy all of the different colors of iris!

Moerman, D.E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, Portland OR. print.
Pallida Dalmatica and Orris Root —in Italy, Perfume, Martinis, and Your Garden Accessed 4/25/15
Stewart, A. 2013 The Drunken Botanist. Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, NC. Print.

Kathy Keeler
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