Orris root was originally used as a medicinal herb in the treatment of dropsy and bronchial ailments. Always considered to be a noble herb, the iris, from which the root comes, symbolized power and majesty.
Iris florentina is slightly fragrant, with large beautiful white flowers. It is mainly cultivated as an ornamental plant in the border. The flowers, which bloom in May, have only a short flowering season but it is a handsome plant to grow in the herb garden. The spear- shaped leaves are flat and pale green and the whole plant grows about 2ft (61 cm) high. Iris florentina is a perennial herb with fleshy creeping rhizomes: it is the rhizomes which, when dried, produce the orris root known as rhizoma iridis. There are two other iris which produce orris root: iris germanica, which has large deep blue flowers, and iris pallida, with scented pale blue flowers, but iris florentina produces the best orris root.
Iris florentina, once established in the garden, needs little attention. It will grow in ordinary garden soil in a sunny position with the roots buried and the crown of the rhizomes facing towards the sun. Plant the iris in April for flowering the following year. Division of the plant is best done in the spring.
When the plants are two or three years old the rhizomes are gathered for drying. They are scrubbed and cut into small pieces then dried and stored in the usual way. The orris has very little smell when it is first dried and it has to be stored for some time before the full well-known violet scent begins to be released. As the years go by the fragrance becomes stronger and stronger.
Orris powder adds its lovely fragrant scent of violets to many commercially-made cosmetics and perfumes, dry shampoos, herb sachets and potpourri and is easy to use in preparations made in the home.
* To make a dry shampoo: Grind to a fine powder some dried orris root and mix it with a little powdered starch. Sprinkle the shampoo on to the head and brush it well through the hair to banish a greasy and lanky appearance.
* Those who suffer from the embarrassing complaint of bad breath will find that chewing a piece of orris root will help to disguise it.
* Powdered orris root provides a very good fixative in herb sachets, herb pillows and potpourris, strengthening the scents of other herbs and helping to preserve those perfumes over a long period of time. Herb sachets and pillows are made of a material through which scents can easily permeate such as muslin, cotton lawn, organdy or voile. There are many herbs and spices suitable for using in potpourris and other sweet-smelling mixtures and these can be varied according to their use. There are sleep-inducing herbs, herbs for clearing the head, invigorating or calming. But for most of the mixtures a fixative will be needed and orris root is one of the most effective dried fixatives available.