Botanical Name: Iris germanica var. florentina
Common Names: Orris Root, Florentine Iris, White Iris
Origin: Southern Europe
Orris Root is a hardy, rhizomatous perennial with stiff, veined, blue-green, swordlike leaves that grow in a fan shape. It grows to a height of approximately 50 cm and in a clump up to 40 cm wide. The large, white, attractive flowers appear in spring and early summer and are tinged with pale lavender with a yellow centre. Flowers have the typical iris appearance with three drooping petals and three outer sepals. Apart from the display of flowers, the plant is grown primarily for its bulbous rhizome which is creamy white beneath the wrinkled brown skin.
Orris Root requires full sun and deep, rich, neutral to alkaline, very well-drained soil. It prefers cooler conditions and doesn’t like to be excessively hot, humid or over-watered during summer. The plant takes at least 2 to 3 years to mature and rhizomes can be harvested from this stage onwards. Individual plants will live for 10 years if undisturbed but thrive if divided to prevent over-crowding.
Orris Root plants are best left undisturbed for at least the first few years. They will enlarge and multiply by producing smaller side rhizomes that can be sub-divided and replanted. New plants are propagated by lifting and dividing the mature plants in autumn. The younger rhizomes can then be planted back into the soil and the larger rhizomes can be dried for use in the home. Alternatively, large rhizomes can be cut into sections ensuring each section has a growing point and fan of leaves. Trim the leaves to reduce plant stress and replant rhizomes 35 cm apart. Cover with soil but leave some of the rhizome showing above the soil level so it doesn’t rot. The roots which grow out of the sides of the rhizomes will anchor them into the soil and prevent the plants from falling over. Orris Root plants and rhizomes are not easy to find but can usually be purchased from reputable nurseries or divided from a friend’s garden.
Orris Root is often included as one of the many ingredients of Ras el hanout, a complex and distinctive mix of more than 20 herbs and spices which is associated with Moroccan cuisine. The roots also provide a bitter flavouring used in liqueurs and Orris is an ingredient that adds depth of flavour in many brands of gin. Typically, Orris Root used in gin has been dried for five years or more.
The flavonoids of Orris Root are believed to possess anti-inflammatory activity explaining its traditional use as a remedy for sore throats, colds, coughs, hoarseness, bronchitis, colic, congestion in the liver and digestive complaints. It was also chewed to treat bad breath and used as a powerful purgative. However, today it is rarely recommended medicinally.
Orris Root powder is pale cream-white with a very fine-texture like talcum powder and a distinctive aroma similar to violets. It’s invaluable for its ability to impart a violet scent to other dried plant material where it acts as a preservative, fixative and stabiliser. When used in potpourris and scented pillows or satchels, it intensifies, enhances and binds the scents of the other.
The dried root powder may also be used as a dry shampoo or talcum powder substitute, but care should be taken as it may cause sneezing and coughing in some people.
Plants reach maturity in three years, so it’s important to wait at least that long before harvesting the first rhizomes. The rhizomes are dried by lifting them in autumn and cleaning off soil and debris. They are then stored in a single layer in a dark, dry, well-ventilated space and allowed to dry for at least two years. The fragrance of the root doesn’t start to develop until a year after drying and continues to increase in fragrance over time. After 5 years the dried root will be at its most fragrant with a strong aroma of sweet violets. At this stage they can be ground into a fine powder and stored in an air-tight container, or stored and used as dried pieces.