Medical Herbs Catalogue

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Family: N.O. Iridaceae

The Iris belongs to a family of plants that is justly popular in this country for its many varieties of handsome garden blooms, beautifying the borders in spring and early summer.

The plant is named after the rainbow goddess, 'Iris,' from the beauty and variety of colours in the flowers of the genus.

From ancient times the stately Iris stood as a symbol of power and majesty - it was dedicated to Juno and was the origin of thesceptre, the Egyptians placing it on the brow of the Sphinx and on the sceptre of their kings, the three leaves of its blossoms typifying faith, wisdom and valour.

Cultivation has produced a great number of varieties, both among the bulbous or Spanish Iris (Iris xiphium) and the herbaceous, or Flag Irises, which have fleshy, creeping rootstocks or rhizomes. Among the latter, manyhave a considerable reputation for their medicinal virtues; in all the species belonging to this genus, the roots being more or less acrid, are possessed of cathartic and emetic properties. The chief economic use of the Iris at the present time is for the production of Orris Root (Rhizoma Iridis), which is derived from I. Germanica, I. pallida and I. Florentina, collected indiscriminately in Italy from these three species, well-known and very beautiful ornamental plants, natives of the eastern Mediterranean region, extending into Northern India and Northern Africa, and largely cultivated for their rhizomes in Southern Europe, mostly on the mountain slopes.

I. pseudacorus, I. foetidissima and I. tuberosa are the European species that have been employed in medicine, though their use has much declined, but the American species, I. versicolor, produces a drug official in the United States Pharmacopoeia.

Only two of these Irises are naturally wild plants in this country, I. pseudacorus (the Yellow Flag) and I. foetidissima (the Stinking Iris). I. tuberosa (the Snakeshead Iris), which has cathartic properties, is occasionally but very rarely found in Cornwall and South Devon, but it is not native, and where it occurs it is considered a garden escape.

I. Germanica and other Flag Irises are cultivated in this country for their beautiful flowers, but no attempts have been made to supply the market with the rhizomes.

In ancient Greece and Rome, Orris Root was largely used in perfumery, and Macedonia, Elis and Corinth were famous for their unguents of Iris.

Theophrastus and Dioscorides were well acquainted with Orris Root; Dioscorides and Pliny remark that the best comes from Illyricum (the modern Dalmatia). Probably I. Germanica is the Illyrian Iris of the ancients, as it is plentiful there and I. Florentina and I. pallida do not occur. The latter were probably introduced into Northern Italy in the early Middle Ages. The ancient arms of Florence - a white Lily or Iris on a red shield - seem to indicate that the city was famed for the growth of these plants. A writer of the thirteenth century, Petrus de Crescentiro of Bologna, mentions the cultivation of the White, as well as of the Purple Iris, and states at what season the root should be collected for medicinal use.

IRIS GERMANICA (Linn.), Blue Flower de Luce, German Iris, is a handsome plant with sword-like leaves of a bluish-green colour, narrow and flat, the largest of all the species. The flower-sterns are 2 to 3 feet high, the flowers, which bloom in May and June, are large and deep blue, or purplish-blue in colour. The three bending petals, or falls, are of a faint purple, inclining to blue, with purple veins running lengthwise; the beard on them is yellow and the three erect petals or standards are bright blue, with faint purple stripes. The flowers have an agreeable scent, reminiscent of orange blossoms. The creeping root-stocks are thick and fleshy, spreading over the surface of the ground and of a brownish colour.

Habitat: The plant is a native of Southern Europe, very frequent in Italy, apart from its cultivation there, and is also cultivated in Morocco. In England, this German Flag or Flag Iris is by far the commonest of the family in gardens and justly deserves its popularity, for it will grow and flower well in the most unpromising situations and will bear with apparent equanimity hardships that few other plants would endure without loss of vitality. It is not moisture-loving - ordinary border soil, well cultivated, suits it well and the heavy clay soils are more or less inimical to its growth. If the best results are to be obtained, deep and rich beds should be prepared for these Irises, for they will well repay liberal treatment by the production of larger and more numerous flowers. Although they may be moved at any time of the year, April is the best month. They will not flower the same year, but they will during the summer, if attended to, become sufficiently strong to bloom freely the succeeding year. Winter is the worst time to move them, as in heavy soil, the plants often remain dormant without forming a single root-fibre until the spring. But they are easily increased in spring by dividing the root-stocks and replanting and watering into rich soil.

The German Iris, or Flag Iris of the nurseryman as it now exists, is a compound of many species and more varieties, as hybridization has been extensively carried on for many years.

Medicinal Action and Uses: The juice of the fresh roots of this Iris, bruised with wine, has been employed as a strong purge of great efficiency in dropsy, old physic writers stating that if the dropsy can be cured by the hand of man, this root will effect it. The juice is also sometimes used as a cosmetic and for the removal of freckles from the skin.

IRIS PALLIDA (Lamarck) has sweet-scented flowers of a delicate, pale blue. It is a native of the Eastern Mediterranean countries and grows very freely in Italy. It yields, with I. Germanica, the bulk of the drug.

IRIS FLORENTINA (Linn.), called by our old writers White Flower de Luce, or Flower de Luce of Florence, has large, white flowers tinged with pale lavender and a bright yellow beard on the falls. Less commonly, a purple form occurs, of smaller growth.

The fresh root, like that of I. Germanica, is a powerful cathartic, and for this reason its juice has been employed in dropsy.

It is chiefly used in the dry state, being said to be good for complaints of the lungs, for coughs and hoarseness, but is now more valued for the pleasantness of its violet-like perfume than for any other use.

Fresh roots have an earthy smell, the characteristic violet odour is gradually developed during the drying process and does not attain its maximum for at least two years, and even intensifies after that time. The essential oil may, therefore, be included in the class of socalled 'ferment-oils.'

The rhizomes of I. Germanica, I. pallida and I. Florentina so closely resemble one another that they are not easily distinguished. Contractions occur at intervals of about two inches, indicating the limit of a year's growth in each case.

When fresh, the rhizomes are extremely acrid and when chewed excite a pungent taste in the mouth, which continues some hours. This acridity is almost entirely dissipated when dried, the taste then being slightly bitter and the smell agreeable, closely approaching that of violets, though in the fresh state the rhizomes are practically odourless. The loss of acridity appears to be due to the disappearance of a volatile acrid principle on drying the rhizome.

All three species of Iris from which Orris root is derived were already cultivated in England in the time of Gerard, though not on a commercial scale.

Collection: In Tuscany and other parts of Italy, large districts are given over to the cultivation of these three Irises . They are also cultivated, but only to a slight degree, in other parts of Europe, in Morocco and in India.

The planting of the Orris root in Tuscany - locally known as 'giaggiolo' - is a matter of great importance. When the Iris begins to grow, the ground is carefully and systematically weeded, this being chiefly done by women, who traverse the rows of the plants barefoot, hoeing up the weeds; whole families of peasants work together at this, and in the subsequent collection, trimming and drying of the roots.

The Orris plant takes two or even three years to arrive at maturity, only a somewhat sparse growth being attained during the second year: the flowers are very fine, but the roots are as yet immature. In the third year of its growth, the plant attains almost the height of a man. The full beauty of the flowers lasts during May and June, in July they fade and wither and the glory of the plantation is over.

The product of a good harvest at a large Orris plantation at San Polo, in the hilly region midway between Florence and Siena in Tuscany, is about a million kilogrammes of fresh roots (about 1,000 tons), yielding after peeling and drying, roughly 300 tons of dry root.

Orris root, in the decorticated, dried condition, is imported into England in large casks, mainly from Leghorn, Trieste and Mogador.

There are several varieties of Orris in commerce, differing chiefly in colour and the care with which they have been peeled. The finest is Florentine Orris, from I. Florentina, which is carefully peeled, nearly white, plump and very fragrant, irregular in shape, bearing small marks where the rootlets have been removed. Veronese Orris, from I. Germanica, is usually somewhat compressed and elongated, less suddenly tapering than the Florentine root, less carefully peeled, yellowish in colour, and somewhat wrinkled and has not the fine fragrance of the Florentine Orris.

Morocco or Mogadore Orris, also obtained from I. Germanica, bears particles of reddishbrown cork, is darker in colour generally and less fragrant; the pieces are also smaller, flatter, more shrunken and often bear the shrivelled remains of leaves at the apex. This variety is sometimes bleached with sulphur dioxide. It is altogether inferior to both the foregoing varieties. Bombay Orris is also of small size, dark-coloured and of inferior fragrance.

Constituents: The chief constituent of Orris root is the oil of Orris 0.1 to 0.2 per cent), a yellowish-white to yellow mass, containing about 85 per cent of odourless myristic acid, which appears to be liberated from a fat present in the rhizome during the process of steam distillation. Oil of Orris is known commercially as Orris Butter.

Other constituents are fat, resin, a large quantity of starch, mucilage, bitter extractive and a glucoside named Iridin, which is not to be confused with the powdered extracti Iridin or Irisin, prepared from the rhizome of the American plant I. versicolor, by precipitating a tincture of the drug with water and mixing the precipitate with an equal weight of powdered liquorice root, or other absorbent powder.

The odorous constituent of oil of Orris is a liquid ketone named Irone, to which the violet-like odour is due (though it is not absolutely identical with oil of Violets obtained from the natural flower), and it is the presence of this principle in the rhizome that has long led to the employment of powdered Orris root in the preparation of Violet powders, which owe very little of their scent to the real Violet perfume. It was first isolated by the eminent chemist Tiemann and formed the basis of his researches on artificial Violet perfume, and in 1893 he succeeded in preparing an allied body, which was termed Ionone and which had an odour even more like that of Violets than had Irone, and is now largely manufactured for the perfumery trade in making toilet waters and handkerchief extracts. The discovery of Ionone, which costs about one-eighth of the natural oil of Violets, has popularized Violet perfume to an enormous extent: most of the cheaper Violet perfumes on the market contain no trace of true Violet, but are made entirely with the artificial Ionone.

Otto of Orris is a golden-yellow oily liquid, which contains the odorous principles of the concrete oil of the rhizome without the solid, fatty inodorous constituents.

The important industry of Orris root still requires the light of scientific research to be thrown upon the life history of the plant to determine the conditions under which the largest percentage of the volatile oil can be developed.

Orris Root - Medicinal Action and Uses: Orris Root is rarely employed in medicine at the present time.

The fresh root possesses diuretic, emetic and cathartic properties. If given in large doses, it will occasion nausea, vomiting, purging and colic.

The drug was formerly employed in the treatment of bronchitis and chronic diarrhoea, and was considered a useful remedy in dropsy. The internal dose is stated to be from 5 to 15 grains.

The starch of the rhizome was formerly reckoned medicinal.

The dried powder is said to act as a good snuff, useful to excite sneezing to relieve cases of congested headache.

Pieces of the dried root are occasionally chewed for the purpose of overcoming a disagreeable breath.

The principal use of the dried root is, however, in perfumery, in sachet powders and to flavour dentifrices, toothpowders and cachous.

Oil of Orris, obtained by distilling powdered Orris root with steam, has an intense and extremely delicate odour of the fresh Violet and commands a high price. It is used commercially in the preparation of the finest scents and is also blended with artificial Violet perfumes, the odour of which it renders more subtle. Orris has the power of strengthening the odour of other fragrant bodies and is used as a fixative in perfumery.

Powdered Orris root is sometimes put into rinsing water in laundries and imparts a refreshing and fragrant scent to the linen.

Orris root, mixed with Anise, was used in England as a perfume for linen as early as 1480, under which date it is mentioned in the Wardrobe accounts of Edward IV. One of the most interesting of the MS. still-room books of the later seventeenth century is Mary Doggett: Her Book of Receipts, 1682. In it we find 'A perfume for a sweet bagg,' as follows: 'Take half a pound of Cypress Roots, a pound of Orris, 3 quarter of a pound of Calamus, 3 Orange stick with Cloves, 2 ounces of Benjamin, 3 quarters of a pound of Rhodium, a pound of Coriander seed, and an ounce of Storax and 4 pecks of Damask Rose leaves, a peck of dryed sweet Marjerum, a pretty stick of Juniper shaved very thin, some lemon pele dryed and a stick of Brasill; let all these be powdered very grosely for ye first year and immediately put into your baggs; the next year pound and work it and it will be very good again.' Dr. Rhind (History of the Vegetable Kingdom, 1868) states that Orris gives the peculiar flavour to artificial brandies made in this country, and the root is much used in Russia to flavour a drink made of honey and ginger which is sold in the streets.

The larger and finer roots are often turned into pretty forms to be used for ornamental purposes, rosary beads, etc., and long pieces of Verona Orris are often shaped for infants' use when teething. The less handsome rhizomes, as well as the chips, are distilled.

Lyte says 'the Iris is knowen of the clothworkers and drapers, for with these rootes they use to trimme their clothes to make them sweete and pleasant.' This was probably the 'swete clothe' so celebrated in the reign of Elizabeth.