iris wood cut

Iris versicolorIraceae family

In 1147, King Louis the VII had a dream. In it, according to legend, he was commanded to adopt the blue iris as the national flower. It stirred him so deeply that he had the iris carved into his coat of arms. For the next six hundred years, the iris, known as fleur-de-lis in its stylized form, became the symbol of France.

King Louis was not dreaming of an obscure wayside flower. Iris was a common sight throughout France. Peasants planted native irises on the edges of their thatched roofs so its roots would prevent erosion and absorb extra runoff. Apothecaries prescribed iris seeds to settle the digestive problems that plagued medieval Europe. The root was blended into cough syrups and antitussive teas.

Dried iris rhizome was used so often it had its own name separate from the flower: orris root. This herb has a peculiar property that contributed to its popularity. After the root has been peeled and dried for 2 years, it begins to degrade and release the essential oil scientists now call irone. This essential oil smells delightfully of violets.

Orris powder has a consistency similar to talc. This made it popular in baby powders, wig powders and tooth pastes. Perfumeries stored rooms of it for use in violet scented cosmetics. Potpourri recipes still call for dried orris root as a fixative.

In the Middle Ages, the haunting violet perfume of iris root clung to linens fresh from the wash. The fragrance of orris rose from glasses of liquor. Battle wounds were salved by unguents of iris. King Louis the VII was surrounded by iris. Its petals drifted from his dreams and graced the flags of the country he loved.

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