Les Iris Cultivés 1923 p. 175-183
Société National d'Horticulture de France Commision des Iris

Miss Helen E. RICKETTS
Member of American Iris Society

The use of Iris in medicine and perfumery was known to mankind farther back than it is convenient to trace in the literature. However, a word or two found here and a few more there, give us some idea of the history of Iris.

As a perfume, Iris oil was mentioned in the third century, among the costly spices of the Egyptian King, Ptolemaeus Philadelphus. As a medicinal plant it found favor with the ancient Greeks. Theophrastus, the favorite pupil of Aristotle, stated that the plants growing in Illyria and about the Adriatic throve much better than elsewhere, and that they also varied in property with the locality, being less aromatic in the colder regions. He also knew that the odor of the rhizome developed after drying and lasted for about six years. Dioscorides, a Greek physician of the second century, informs us, in his Materia Medica, that the various colored Iris, white, light yellow, purple, and blue, were named Iris from the rainbow, and recommends that the roots be strung on threads when curing. He stated a preference for the Illyrian and Macedonian roots to the Libian and others. He also noted that with time the roots increased in pleasant odor. He mentions a large number of ailments for which Iris was used, as does Pliny. It was used as a chest remedy, and succus ireos served as a plaster preparation. Heraclides of Tarent, who wrote on time subject of time preparation and use of Iris remedies, gave Iris with Hyssop and honey. Alexander Tralleanius gave it with licorice.

In speaking of the Iris, Pliny said If one will dig the root, let him scatter honey water about him for three months to appease the earth with flattery, mark a three fold circle about him with the point of his sword, pull out the root and raise it to the heaven". This ritual which seems to have been considerably observed by the [176] ancient herbalists and apothecaries no doubt owes its origin to the fact that phosphorescence is shown by the fractured rhizome of Iris florentina, when dug at night.

The Ancients embraced under iris several other plants, as for instance Gladiolus, up to the time of the Middle Ages, was often called ireos. At this time Iris, according to the locality in which it grew, was known as Iris, Hyrius, Irius, Ercus, and Yrius.

The apothecary of the Middle Ages as well as the herbalist of Pliny's time prepared an Iris starch to which curative properties were ascribed.

According to records of Edward IV, in the year of 1480, a favorite toilet water was prepared by mixing orris root with anise. The species of Iris furnishing orris root were evidently first known in England about 1397. Orris root consists of the rhizomes of the three Iris species, Iris florentina, I. pallida, and I. germanica, peeled and carefully dried.

Orris root fingers apparently were the next form in which Iris was used, and this industry seems to have originated in Germany, at Ebingen and Wurtemberg. The fingers consisted of Verona root chiefly and were made by turning the commercial root on a lathe until flat and oval and securing them by a silk thread through a hole in the end. Iris for a time was cultivated for commercial purposes, having been introduced into Germany from Italy by the Benedicts, during the 16th century. "Dentarnole", as orris root fingers were called by the Italians when they took up the manufacture, was used in the place of the more expensive coral and ivory teething rings for babies, and the juice absorbed from the root was considered an excellent digestive. A the present time, orris root fingers are manufactured by pharmaceutical houses and are offered for sale by our modern pharmacies, although the majority of physicians denounce the use of orris root fingers as harmful and claim the "excellent digestive juice" is disturbing to the stomach of the infant who cuts his teeth on orris root.

Besides "fingers" orris root furnished "palline" or beads which were used as rosaries and in medicine. During the 18th century, science was of the opinion that an open wound was the surest way of curing scrofula and other skin diseases. Urns beads or "issue peas  were much in demand in this connection, being bandaged into the wound to keep it open. That this dubious practice was still in vogue during the early part of the 19th century is evidenced by the fact that something like 20,000,000 beads were made in eastern Italy each year and exported through the port of Leghorn. Orris root was also reduced to grains and colored red, blue, green, and yellow and used to throw on fires to perfume halls and drawing [177] rooms. Germany and Austria consumed the greater portion of the output of this product. Orris root, in the form of tiny chips was chewed by men servants to remove the smell of tobacco and garlic. Orris root is said to be responsible for the bouquet in much wine, likewise for the bitter in some beer and the savor of several soups.

The best orris root in the opinion of the ancients was produced in Illyria, while Florentine Orris Root is given the preference to day. The cultivation of orris root in the vicinity of Florence dates back to about the 13th century. In fact, the Iris was so intimately associated with the lives of the people, that the ancient arms of Florence bore a white Iris on a red shield, which subsequently changed to a red Iris, or lily, on a white shield. The product from the provinces lying to the east of Florence is famous for the fragrance, size, and whiteness of the roots. Although, according to literature, in former limes Florentine orris root consisted exclusively of the rhizome of Iris florentina, such is not the case today. This variety or rather, this species, forms but a portion of the product now on the market as Florentine orris root, the rest being composed of certain varieties of Iris germanica and I. pallida.

While Iris will grow in any soil, the best orris root is produced in alluvial or stony mountain soil and the plantations for this reason are always located on the hillsides and never in the valleys. The plantings are not large, that is, measured as we do our corn fields, by acres, but consist of patches here and there on rocky slopes, in sunny open places in the woods, or between the vineyard rows. Fertilizing is not absolutely required, but the application of commercial fertilizer containing potassium salts is helpful. Rich land and heavy manuring result in a quantity of large roots, but the roots are neither fragrant nor of good quality, and when dry they shrivel up, so that they must be discarded. The plant also grows high on the mountains, but the snow and ice makes cultivation difficult. Usually, the roots are harvested during the month of August, three years after they are planted; however if prices are high, the plants are sometimes dug after two years. The roots are dug in small quantities and carefully sorted, the young or small roots being put aside for planting future crops, and the large, firm, fully matured roots washed, usually in a nearby stream. The product is collected and the roots are trimmed and peeled, generally by women who use curved knives to facilitate the removal of the skin. The roots are then spread on terraces to dry for two or three weeks. When dry they are baled and hauled to Leghorn, the nearest point of export and held in the markets there for sale. For several years during the early part of the 20th century, speculators cornered the market in orris root and forced prices up beyond reasonable limits, fortunately, [178] the growers of orris root and the manufacturers of orris products managed to get the prices back on a fair level. During the war, prices were again high and unsettled but are now back to a normal basis,

From Verona, in north east Italy, comes the Veronese orris root, the product of Iris germanica, which is inferior to the Florentine, being darker in color and less fragrant. Of still poorer quality is the Mogador root, or that exported from Morocco. In order to make this root more presentable it is often bleached with sulphuric acid by unscrupulous dealers.

Occasionally, a few huge bales of orris root from India have been offered in the London market, but the material was practically worthless as it had not been properly grown nor collected. Orris root is also produced in China, but is rarely entered in the European or American markets.

Orris products occupy a highly important place in the manufacture of perfumes, toilet preparations and soaps. Scarcely an article on Milady's dressing table but what is indebted in some way to orris root, for its perfume, as an ingredient or as an aid in manufacture, etc. On the market, today, are many interesting and excellent products derived from orris root.

First, comes the powdered root itself, which forms an important ingredient in many toilet powders, tales, complexion, tooth, foot, hair, baby powders, and even others orris root is doubly valuable. It has, besides its delightful violet fragrance, a property that is known among perfumers as a "fixative quality". In preparing perfume extracts and perfumed powders, it is essential to reproduce the conditions existing in the flower — to have the odor given off gradually. This is done by adding to the perfume preparation a substance such as orris root which retards the evaporation of the flower odor. Consequently, tinctures of orris root form important ingredients of many natural flower essences and in synthetic perfumes too. Powdered orris root is added to the pure fat base employed by the perfumer in the enfleuraging process. Belfore the days of the present delightful talcum and baby powders, violet powder was used, which was prepared by mixing starches and fragrant oils with orris root.

Next, but of prime importance, is orris oil. It is only within the last few years that this orris product has been developed to its present excellence, but that does not signify that it is a comparatively new preparation. The compounding of fragrant iris oils and odorous salves was no small industry in Macedonia, Corinth and Elis in the days of the ancient kings. Oil of orris has been the subject of many experiments and much thought on the part of scientists until, as it [179] has been expressed, some of the orris oil products are "worth their weight in gold". In the early part of the 19th century, most of the orris oil was distilled in Paris, but the center of this industry soon moved to Germany, where some of the finest orris oils and products were manufactured until the time of the war. At the present, there are several very excellent orris oils on the market which are distilled in France, in England, and in Italy. Some of the very finest are distilled in southern France, where they grow, or at least have grown a portion of the root they distill. It has been said that the variety Clio has been cultivated chiefly, and although the climate is favorable, the cultivation is small compared to the amount of root used. The distillation, and at one time the cultivation too, has been attempted in the United States, but the greater portion of the orris oil and orris products are imported, chiefly from France.

Orris oil is offered to the perfumer in several forms, as orris concrete, the oil as it is distilled from the root, is a fatty substance solid at room temperature; orris liquid, a special distillation product, or in some cases an inferior preparation made by distilling the root with oil of cedar or other less valuable essential oils; orris resins or balsams, an extraction of the entire root; tincture of orris, made by percolating powdered orris root with alcohol, and several other products put out under trade names.

To orris root we are indebted for one of the most wonderful discoveries ever made in the perfume industry — the synthesis of lonone, a substance which has a delightful violet odor when highly diluted. Violet has always been one of the most highly valued and popular of perfumes, but as violet flowers contain so little perfume the true natural violet flower oil is extremely expensive, seven hundred dollars an ounce. Scientists, noting the violet odor of orris root, started extensive research work with the root. on the theory that the substance producing the violet fragrance in orris root was very similar if not the same, as the substance giving fragrance to the violet. To prove this, they determined to extract the odorous principle of orris root. After much work, they finally succeeded in getting a ketone which, diluted many times with alcohol, gave an intense odor of fresh violets, the true natural odor. This product was called Irone, but it too was expensive, since such a minute quantity was present in the root. Six hundred pounds of orris root yielded but one ounce of Irone. However, modern science is ever triumphant. The chemists next succeeded in synthesizing this product, developing it chemically instead of extracting it from orris root. This new synthetic violet odor was named lonone and was first introduced by Schimmel and Company, in 1843. From the first it gained steadily in favor, until it is now considered as the standard [180] synthetic violet. There are several derivatives and variations of the original lonone now on the market, as lonone alpha, lonone beta, etc. Since the advent of Ionone, several other synthetic essences of violet and of orris root have made their appearance, among them. Isirone, Isiraline,  Irisal,  Iridoron, Irenia, Irine, Iso-Irone, Orrisol, (a synthetic duplicating the fixative properties of orris root as well as the fragrance of the natural oil). Among the natural essences offered are: Iris tenfold, Orris Resinarome, Natural Essence Iris Supreme, etc. All this we owe to the Iris!

Orris root, while rising in importance with the perfumer, at the same time gradually lost its good standing with the physician, until at present it is but rarely used medicinally. At one time, orris root was in great demand by physicians of the continent, various curative properties, now discredited, being ascribed to the root. However, during the latter part of the period when orris root was losing its medicinal prestige, its American cousin, Iris versicolor, was gaining renown as the "vegetable mercury". At first it was only accepted by doctors of the homoeopathic and eclectic schools, but soon found favor with practically the entire profession and was an official drug of the United States Pharmacopeia, Sixth Revision (1880-90). Iridin, a resinous principle which is extracted from the rhizome, still finds some use in England. Iris versicolor is a violent poison in over-doses and has caused the serious illness of children who have mistaken it for Sweet Flag. Some deaths are accredited to it. This Iris is a native of North America and is found along streams and in swampy places from Maine to Georgia, eastward to the Mississippi River. Iris versicolor, or Blue Flag, as it is known medicinally, has long been a bone of contention among the doctors, some declare it worthless, while others proclaim its value, meanwhile there has annually been a steady demand for the drug. This brings us to the problem that the manufacturer of Blue Flag preparations has had to face. Many tons of worthless drug have been on the market under the name "Blue Flag", consisting usually of other species and varieties of Iris. This substitution and adulteration has seldom been intentional, but the botanist must be alert, as the illiterate root digger, who usually collect the drug, neither knows nor cares that he procures the exact species—he proceeds on the basis of "looks" and we can't deny that several species look like Iris versicolor, especially when it is not in bloom. The botanists of several drug houses have studied Blue Flag and have identified Iris virginica and Iris caroliniana as among the adulterants; Iris missouriensis has also been suggested in this connection.

Other species of Iris have been used medicinally and domestically from time to time, but not to any great extent. Iris missouriensis [181] has been used in the Indian tribes, by the Medicinemen, as a smoking material mixed with another root or two and a little tobacco to give a person a severe nausea, in order to secure a handsome fee for making him well again. Iris foetidissima has been used by the ancient Greeks, and possibly I. Pseudacorus, which was described by Albertus Magnus who differentiated between it and Iris germanica. In this connection, it is interesting to note that in England the seeds of Iris foetidissima were used as a substitute for coffee.

Thus we see by the bits found here and there in history that the Iris family has long been intimately associated with the home lives and health of the people.