The Bearded Iris
The Bearded Iris is rated amongst the most beautiful of all the flowering perennials and they have also, over many centuries, been used by herbalists and cultivators for their medicinal, culinary and cosmetic properties. Irises are frost-hardy and go into bloom from August onwards, their stunningly-coloured flowers creating a magnificent display that continues throughout summer.
The Iris, which is originally from the Northern Hemisphere and belongs to the family Iridaceae, is said to be one of the oldest plants in cultivation and a depiction of it is to be found on the walls of an Egyptian temple that dates back as far as 1500 BC. It is most likely that the plant was named after the Greek goddess Iris (Iris being the Greek word for ‘rainbow’).
In Greek mythology, and particularly in the Iliad – an epic poem attributed to Homer – Iris was a divine messenger who rode rainbows between heaven and earth. Legend had it that an Iris grew wherever the footsteps of the goddess touched the earth and this gave rise to one of the common names used for Irises: ‘flower of the rainbow’. Other sources simply contend that the Iris took its name directly from the Greek word for rainbow due to the fact that it flowered in so many rainbow-like colours.
Apparently the spread of Irises can be attributed in part to the soldiers of the Ottoman Empire. The story goes that they used to carry Iris rhizomes with them for medicinal purposes, but whenever a comrade perished then an Iris rhizome would be planted on his grave because it was believed that the sword-like leaves of the iris would drive away evil spirits.
At one time the roots or rhizomes of the Iris became popular in the field of Western herbal medicine and were used for all sorts of ailments and complaints, but they are now used mainly as a fixative and a base for perfumery and, believe it or not, in the making of many brands of gin.
The root has to be dried and aged first, which can take up to five years, and it is then ground to powder, dissolved in water and distilled. In order to produce two kilograms of essential oil you require one ton of Iris root. Iris root is also one of the ingredients in ras el hanout, a blend of herbs and spices primarily associated with Moroccan cuisine and used across the Middle East and Northern Africa. Iris root is also referred to as ‘orris’ root, particularly where herbal concoctions and fine cuisine are involved.
When your stock of Irises is such that you are prepared to spare a rhizome then try your hand at making some perfume. Iris perfume was made by the Romans, the Greeks and the Italians, and for many centuries, the root has been used for its delicate fragrance. Try making your own fragrance, mixing and matching different herbs to suit your taste, using the following recipe either as a base or precisely as is.
Add 60 grams freshly chopped Iris root (30 grams commercial orris root powder can be substituted) to 100 ml vodka, seal the bottle and let it infuse for two weeks, shaking the bottle daily, then strain and decant into a perfume bottle. Adding lavender or rose petals lends a feminine touch to the scent while those who prefer a more masculine fragrance can add something musky or woody. Options include fresh bergamot, thyme, cedar wood chips or bark, nutmeg, cinnamon or wormwood, in different combinations; they will produce a range of fragrances.
Sun and soil
The Bearded Iris is not at all difficult to grow, provided you remember a few simple, but important requirements. They need soil that is friable and free draining, and they must receive full sun in order to produce the most blooms. April is the best month for dividing the rhizomes, however, if not done at that time and provided you take good care of them, they can also be divided in spring.
From August onward and throughout summer, growers of the bearded iris can be sure they will have a spectacular show of colours in their gardens for neighbours, friends and family to enjoy.
This article was adapted from an article by Kaitlyn Fuller of Organic Abundance in Newcastle.