Iris Pseudacorus

Medical Herbs Catalogue


Iris Pseudacorus

Botanical Name: Iris Pseudacorus (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Iridaceae

Synonyms: Iris Aquatica. Iris lutia. Yellow Flag. Yellow Iris. Fleur de Luce. Dragon Flower. Myrtle Flower. Fliggers. Flaggon. Segg. Sheggs. Daggers. Jacob's Sword. Gladyne. Meklin. Levers. Livers. Shalder.
Part Used: Root.

Of all British wild plants, none can rival in stately beauty this native representative of the Irises, one of the most distinguished plants in the marginal vegetation of watery places, not only in this country, being universally distributed in Great Britain and growing also in Ireland, but also throughout Europe, North Africa and Siberia.

It is found on river-banks, by the side of lakes, ponds, etc., in ditches and hedges, but any moist, shady place will suit it, and it is quite worthy of a place in our gardens.

Propagation is effected in autumn or spring, by division of the root-stocks. It should not, however, be allowed to grow where cattle feed.

Description: From the thick, creeping rhizome, brownish on the outside, reddish and spongy within, which pushes through the moist ground parallel to the surface, many rootlets pass downwards. From above it, rise the broad, flat, sword-shaped, stalkless leaves, bound several together into a sheath at the base. The lower, radical leaves are 2 to 3 feet tall, the upper leaves much shorter, embracing the flower-stalk, which is round and seldom rises as high as the outer leaves. On the top of the stem are the beautiful, very conspicuous, deep yellow flowers, two or three together, the buds being very large and pointed. The mature flowers consist of three large, drooping, yellow petal-like sepals (the falls) with brownish mottled markings on their upper surfaces, inside which are the three petalloid stigmas, also yellow, which arch gracefully over the stamens, forming a rain-protecting roof for the pollen, as in all the Irises. The honey is contained in canals on the inner side, towards the base of the small, erect petals and out of these it exudes and lies round the ovary in the heart of the flower. The Yellow Iris is adapted to receive two kinds of insect visitors, the Bumble Bee (Bombus), and the Honey Bee (Apis mellifica), and also the long-tongued Hover-Fly (Rhingia rostrata), which in seeking the honey, push through the outer perianth segments and the style, the anther being between, dusting its back with the pollen.

After fertilization, the floral leaves fade and drop away from the top of the capsule, which increases in size. When ripe, the capsule opens above and allows the smooth, flattened seeds, when blown by the wind, to fall some distance away.

This Iris is in bloom from May to July.

Locally, the plant is often called 'Segg,' 'Skeggs' or 'Cegg,' all of which names come down from Anglo-Saxon days, 'Segg' being the Anglo-Saxon for a small sword, an obvious allusion to the shape of its leaves. The names 'Daggers' and 'Jacob's Sword ' have a similar allusion, and 'Yellow Saggen,' 'Seag,' 'Seggin' are variations of Seg. In the days of Chaucer, it was called Gladyne. To the popular mind in early days, the fluttering segment of the perianth suggested the waving of a flag, hence the origin of the names 'Yellow Flag,' 'Water Flag' and 'Sword Flag,' and corruptions of the name such as 'Flaggon,' 'Flaggon's' and perhaps 'Fliggers,' the latter stated to be applied to it from the motion of its leaves by the slightest breeze. The strange name 'Cheiper' is explained 'because children make a shrill noise with its leaves,' and 'Cucumbers' refers to the seedvessels, which when green resemble young cucumbers.

Culpepper calls it 'Myrtle Flag or Myrtle Grass.'

It is also called the Flower de Luce, or Fleur de Lys, being the origin of the heraldic emblem of the Kings of France. The legend is that early in the sixth century, the Frankish King Clovis, faced with defeat in battle, was induced to pray for victory to the god of his Christian wife, Clothilde. He conquered and became a Christian and thereupon replaced the three toads on his banner by three Irises, the Iris being the Virgin's flower. Six hundred years later, it was adopted by Louis VII of France as his heraldic bearings in his Crusade against the Saracens, and it is said that it then became known as Fleur de Louis, corrupted into Fleur de Luce and then into Fleur de Lys or Lis, though another theory for the name is that it was not named Fleur de Lys from Louis, but from the river Lys, on the borders of Flanders, where it was peculiarly abundant.

Its specific name, Pseudacorus, refers to its similarity to another plant, pseudo being the Greek for false, while acorus is the generic name of the Sweet Sedge (Acorus calamus), with which it is supposed to have been confused, the plants when not in flower resembling it and growing in the same situations. The Sweet Sedge, however, has an aromatic scent, while Iris Pseudacorus is odourless.

The Romans called the plant consecratix, from its being used in purifications, and Pliny mentions certain ceremonies used in digging up the plant.

Medicinal Action and Uses: The Yellow Flag rhizome was formerly much employed as a medicine, acting as a very powerful cathartic, but from its extremely acrid nature is now seldom used. An infusion of it has been found to be effective in checking diarrhoea, and it is reputed of value in dysmenorrhoea and leucorrhoea. It was formerly held in the highest esteem, the juice of the root being considered a cure for obstinate coughs, 'evil spleens,' convulsions, dropsies and serpents' bites, and as Gerard also says, 'doth mightilie and vehementlie draw forth choler.' Gerard recommended it as a cosmetic, saying: 'The root, boiled soft, with a few drops of rosewater upon it, laid plaisterwise upon the face of man or woman, doth in two daies at the most take away the blacknesse and blewnesse of any stroke or bruise,' though he adds as a warning that if the skin 'be very tender and delicate, it shall be needful that ye lay a piece of silke, sindall or a piece of fine lawne betweene the plaister and the skinne for otherwise in such tender bodies it often causeth heat and inflammation.' He recommends: 'an oil made of the roots and flowers of the Iris, made in the same way as oil of roses and lilies. It is used to rub in the sinews and joints to strengthen them, and is good for cramp.' Parkinson, of all the varieties, most esteems 'for his excellent beautie and raretie the great Turkie Flower de luce.' 'And for a sweet powder to lay among linnen and garments and to make sweet waters to wash hand-gloves or other things to perfume them' the roots of the sweetsmelling Flag. The acrid juice snuffed up the nostrils excites violent sneezing, and on the authority of Dr. Thornton, 'in this way it has cured complaints of the head of long standing in a marvellous way.' The root powdered was also used as snuff.

The old authorities praised it as a cure for toothache, a slice of the rhizome rubbed against the aching tooth or held in the mouth between the teeth, being supposed to cause the pain to disappear at once.

The root was also an ingredient in an antidote to poison. Withering (Arrangement of Plants) mentions it as having cured swine bitten by a mad dog.

Culpepper (1652) says that the distilled water of the whole herb is a sovereign remedy for weak eyes, either applied on a wet bandage, or dropped into the eye, and that an ointment made of the flowers is very good for ulcers or swellings.

A French chemist, early last century, discovered that the seeds, when ripe, freed from the friable skin which envelops them, produces a beverage similar to coffee and even much superior to it in flavour, but they must be well roasted before using.

The flowers afford a beautiful yellow dye, and the root, with sulphate of iron, a good black dye.

The acrid properties are entirely dissipated by drying, after which it acts only as an astringent, so powerful from the amount of tannin contained, that it has been used in the place of Galls in the making of ink.