Orris Root (Iris pallida, [Iris germanica]) is this Iris’s aged, peeled, and dried rhizome.
This Iris plant bursts into life in the spring in a variety of colors. The flower is fragrant
and has been named after the Rainbow Goddess, Iris.
ORRIS ROOT PROFILE & USES
By Jeanne Rose
COMMON NAME/LATIN BINOMIAL/NAMING INFORMATION ~ Orris Root, Iris germanica, or I. pallida, and from the subgroup ‘florentina’ is the substance commonly called Orris root and is really the rhizome product of a particular Iris. The apothecary’s name is Rhizoma iridis. And other common names include Queen Elizabeth root and “eye of heaven.”
FAMILY ~ A perennial and hardy flowering plant of the family Iridaceae and grows from a rhizome, the modified main stem of a plant growing horizontally underground.
COUNTRIES OF ORIGINS ~ It is also called Iris florentina germanica, which means ‘of Germany.’ Florentina means ‘of Florence’ (Italy). This incredible ancient plant is native to the Mediterranean and used in Greece, Rome, and Macedonia in unguents and perfumes.
HISTORICAL & INTERESTING INFORMATION ~ The plant was known, dried, and ground to powder, used for its violet scent, “to scent bedclothes in the 1480s and for flavoring certain gins. It has been used medicinally as a fixative in perfume, a fixative scent in potpourris, and for powdering wigs and hair in the 18th century. The flowers are possibly the origin of the ‘fleur-de-lis’ of France.”1. To the French, the flower is often used in ceremony, symbolically or natural; the three petals symbolize faith, wisdom, and valor.
It was possibly used to decorate the Sphinx and was known to Thutmose III of the era 1501-1447 BC. In the seventh century AD, the Slavic people used Iris germanica and other herbs in cosmetics.
A Jeanne Rose Orris Root Tomato Tale
It was a lovely spring day in 1980, and I was traveling in Boulder, CO. I had come to visit friends, talk about bath herbs to other friends, and eat great food. They picked me up at the Denver, CO. airport, and we drove to Boulder, where I would stay for a few days. We were driving along and passed by a farm with row after row of Iris in flower in many colors and hues. I had already grown the Iris florentina at my home in San Francisco and was currently aging the root in my desk drawer. But this was a magnificent surprise to see such a lovely field and to be inundated with the astonishing sweet scent of the blooming Iris. I was surprised at the intensity of the odor that wafted into the car off the field; the scent was sublime, with a lush floral odor mixed with the spring breeze and the mountains nearby. Iris flowers are a wonder of nature that is appreciated for their exquisite beauty and fragrance. I believe the farm is still there in the middle of Boulder, called Longs Gardens, and is a great choice for a visit in May. (https://longsgardens.com/about/)
Madame Pompadour is attended to by a lady, powdering her enormous coiffure with Orris root, and on her dressing table are bottles of perfume. From a copy in my personal library, The Romance of Perfume, illustrated by George Barbier and written by LeGalliene.
ENDANGERED OR NOT~ Some species of Iris are endangered. The leaves and roots can cause skin irritations and allergies in some people.
GENERAL DESCRIPTION OF PLANT HABITAT AND GROWTH ~ The color of this species of Iris flower that gives Orris root is white, and in its second year can grow as tall as a person. “The flower petals reach the height of their beauty by the second year, but the roots must age for 2 to 3 years before they reach full maturity when they contain the highest concentration of the desired irone compounds…. It is necessary for the ground where it grows to be carefully weeded and maintained throughout the period. It has been said that whole families assume this task, and when the plant has arrived at maturity, they tend to the long, labor-intensive pulling, cutting, peeling, and drying process.” – David Mark of Renaissance Aromas.
Orris root smells just like powder
And it cannot get any louder
I love the scent Orris
With Rose is a chorus
Certainly not like clam chowder.
Planted in 1972, harvested in 1975, and aged in a desk drawer until 1978
PORTION OF PLANT USED IN DISTILLATION, EXTRACTION METHODS, AND YIELD ~ Plant rhizomes, mainly from Morocco, are harvested, peeled, dried, and powdered, and are processed by supercritical carbon dioxide extraction yielding 1- kilo of extract from around 34 kilos of raw material. It is also solvent extracted for an absolute as well as CO2 extracted.
HOME DISTILLING ~ You peel these rhizomes first, that is, if you want peeled white Orris. After you have pulled the roots, washed, and peeled them, I will chop them coarsely, then let them dry in a warm place, in the shade, on trays. I used to frame up 2’ X 2’ fiberglass screening and lay the drying Orris root there for a week or so, and then put them into muslin bags and let them mature in a dry place for three years. They have to be protected from rodents and bugs. I have also taken perfectly shaped rhizomes and aged them in my desk drawer so that no creatures could find them and gnaw at them. After they have dried and the odor has has been obtained, you powder and use or distill.
If you decide to distill, I recommend soaking/macerating the chopped roots in the distillation waters for 24 hours before beginning the distillation in the same waters, hydro-distillation. It also should be a warm day when you start the soaking and the distillation. When I distill, I have a copper screen in the bottom of the pot that is supported on a short stand. I put the chopped roots on the screen along with the maceration waters. Go low and slow. [go low on heat and slow with the distillation] Don’t be in a hurry when you are distilling, and watch the pot constantly so that it does not overheat.
Benoit Roger says, “Steam can’t be used alone; it is usually hydrodistilled with continuous stirring. The rhizomes must be powdered and soaked overnight in hot water and then distilled for at least one day with cohobation. You must keep the condenser above 50-55 degrees C to allow the orris butter to come out of the condenser or raise the temperature to 60 degrees C periodically. I can’t tell you THE exact ratio of orris/water you need as it depends on the still, heating, agitation, or not, but it should be quite high (1/10 – 1/12, and some say more…) to not burn the plant material. Good luck”.
ORGANOLEPTIC CHARACTERISTICS of ORRIS SELECT ~
- Color – pale ivory
- Clarity – semi-clear
- Viscosity – slightly viscous
- Taste – powder-like taste, very somewhat bitter
- Intensity of odor – 2
- Tenacity – If used in enough quantity will add some tenacity to the odor – 5
- Odor Description/ Aroma Assessment ~ The Iris pallida of Italy and China has floral, powder, and green notes; from Serbia and Morocco, it is floral, powder, fatty, and sweet woody; the Iris germanica often has a fruity note. This distinctive soft powdery, violet-like odor is simply luxurious, and with it comes an aura of romance and child-like happiness. Orris root blends well with florals of Champa, Neroli, Rose, and Rose Geranium and green notes of Violet leaf and Galbanum.
- This is a fixative note: when added to a perfume, it holds, strengthens, and fixes the odor.
SCENT SNAPSHOT OF ORRIS ROOT – 2010
5.Scent Snapshot is part of the Aromatherapy Studies Course,
SOURCES ~ You can obtain the CO2 extract from www.PrimaFleur.com. Get it when you can as this lovely product so useful in perfumery is sometimes very difficult to obtain.
Use the oil in moderation in your work; sometimes, it is more appropriate to use the herb/plant for its therapeutic properties in a compress, tincture, or powder.
I originally purchased my Iris plants (I. florentina) in 1972 and probably obtained them from Old House Gardens; see I. florentina, I. pallida at (https://oldhousegardens.com/display/?cat=iris). You may need to order now for fall planting and remember to order now to get some two years in the future. The true heirloom plants for old-time fragrance are getting harder and harder to find.
This work was sponsored and
supported by Prima Fleur Botanicals.
GENERAL PROPERTIES of Orris root
Although Orris may have been used medicinally at one time, its chief uses now are in perfumery, soap making, and to flavor liquors, from gin to vermouth. The carbon dioxide extracts, CO2, are closer in composition to the scent as it occurs in the botanical plant than those obtained by other techniques.
PROPERTIES AND USES ~ Orris root powder was used as a face or wig powder and mixed with talcum as a body powder. It is now primarily used as a concrete or CO2 extract in fine perfumery.
……….Diffuse/Diffusion ~ I love this scent, the flower, the aged root, and the Orris Select. But I admit to never using it in a diffuser as it is one of the more expensive oils, and I think putting it into a diffuser is wasteful.
……….Emotional/Energetic Use ~ Inhaling the scent of this plant or its oil, by itself or in a floral blend, is a soothing, relaxing way to calm your mind. It blends well with most florals and woods. The root powdered also has been frequently mentioned ritually as an ingredient in spells, particularly in love magic, protection, and in divination rituals.
CHEMICAL COMPONENTS of Orris root ~ oil of Orris (0.1–0.2%), a yellow-white mass containing myristic acid. The oil of orris is sometimes sold as orris butter. Other components include fat, resin, starch, mucilage, bitter extractive, and a glucoside called iridin or irisin. The root needs to be harvested and aged/cured before processing. “During this curing period, oxidative degradation of iridals to irons occurs (Brenna et al., 2003; Schütz et al., 2011). It is these irones (α‑irone, β‑irone, and γ‑irone) that are at the heart of the distinctive violet-like smell that has made it, along with its natural fixative properties, so popular in perfumery and also to the distiller (Krick et al., 1983)”.4
Concrete of Iris pallida – Alberta-grown and CO2 extracted
PERFUMERY & BLENDS ~ The CO2 is from Serbia and Morocco and blends well with florals of Neroli, Rose, and Prima Fleur’s Malawi Geranium as well as green notes of Violet leaf and Galbanum. The distinctive violet-like odor is the definition of luxury and feels like a romantic indulgence. While the Iris pallida of Italy and China has distinct floral and green notes, the Iris germanica boasts fruitier, richer notes useful in more industries.
MAKING A TINCTURE OF ORRIS – Here is a technique I use, and it might be useful to someone:
Place freshly ground powder of aged Orris root, Iris pallida, into a quart-size glass jar with a good-fitting lid. Use about a cup full of Orris. Cover by a scant inch with pure 95% grape spirits, I use http://www.organicalcohol.com. As the Orris takes up the alcohol, add more to keep the level at that scant inch. You can use less; just adjust the proportions. Shake vigorously by succussion, every day, as you would for a regular tincture. Store in a quiet, dark, dry place. It takes about 3-6 months for it to be ready. When ready, filter the liquid through a fine grade laboratory type filter paper or an ultra-fine silk cloth and then press the remainder through a tincture press into a new clean 1-pint bottle. Label the bottle. If possible, use the proper laboratory equipment. Let the liquid settle. There may be a fine powder that has settled to the bottom. I will then use this tincture as part of the diluent in a perfume or essential oil blend, and the powder can be kept for a new production of the tincture.
Some people will dry out the alcohol by pouring the liquid into a shallow glass dish, leaving it open in a safe place away from family and pets. There should be good ventilation. Check it regularly. The alcohol will evaporate, leaving a layer of a butter-like resinous substance that smells very good. Wait until all the alcohol is gone. This will depend on the amount and the surface area of the dish you have used. Use an immaculately clean stainless-steel spatula to scrape the buttery layer off the dish and place it in a separate container. Label and date it. This particular process can be tiring, and, in my opinion, I will always choose the actual tincture.
TINCTURING PROCESS ~ Septimus Piesse says (page 134, The Art of Perfumery) that the classic perfume tincture for Orris root is 7 lbs. of aged crushed Orris root in 1 gallon of spirits to ‘stand together (be macerated) for one month before the extract is fit to take off.’ “It requires considerable time to drain away, and, to prevent loss, the remainder of the Orris should be placed in the tincture press.”
There is much information in this book as well as in Steffen Arctander’s book, regarding this substance.
BLENDING WITH FORMULA ~ I have used Orris root Total from a wild source of Iris pallida. This wonderful perfume item was grown in Alberta, and CO2 extracted for the aged root’s sweet, soft, floral scent. Delicious.
Rose oil with Orris root is a classic scent combination, making a fantastic perfume. Rose Oil is a general tonic and powerful nervous system tonic when inhaled – historically known to be relaxing; the SD oil is used in skin care as a tonic astringent and gentle tonic to the skin. The two items together are quite lovely.
• § •
These two formulas are from my New Age Creations company,
with more in The Herbal Body Book.
• • •
HERBAL USES OF ORRIS ROOT ~ The dried root of the Iris florentina, Orris root, was used as a teething item for children. I used it for my second child. It has a pleasant violet smell and a pleasant taste. Then it was deemed allergenic, and one could no longer obtain the carved roots for teething.
When I first started my company in 1966, New Age Creations, it was all about my design in clothing for rock ‘n roll stars; in 1969, I switched to herbal products and made a tooth powder of equal proportions of chalk or baking soda and Orris root. This was considered an excellent dentifrice as long ago as 1854.
In the ‘30s, Orris root was given as a treatment for asthma, and on the other hand, people who have allergies are often sensitive to Orris root.
There are some wonderful herbal formulas for Orris root powder in the Jeanne Rose Herbal Body Book; see p. 314 for a sweet body powder.3
#45 Milk Bath (1973) – from New Age Creations
1 lb. dry milk instant nonfat dry)
¼ lb. Oatmeal (meal or powder)
¼ lb. Oatmeal (meal or powder)
1 oz by vol Orris root – powder
1 oz by vol. Orange Peel – powder
1 oz by vol. Almond Meal – powder
½ oz by vol. Comfrey root – powder
Weigh and divide into 8 oz bottles (4 oz by weight)
This slightly brown/tan product is due to the Comfrey root and Almond meal. This milk/oat/Orris bath is healing, soothing, relaxing, and a tonic to the skin. I have a variety of recipes for this wonderful bath, and this is only one of them. Use about ½ cup per bath (or more).
HYDROSOL ~ This is another one of those plants that should not be collected to distill. It takes a long time to start, two years to grow, and another three years to cure/age to develop the scent, so why waste your work throwing it into a pot with lots of water to distill?
HOWEVER, there is a recipe from 1779 for a distilled water, called Angelic Water, of a most agreeable scent, from the Toilet of Flora …
Angelic Water, Put into a large alembic the following ingredients, Benjamin of four ounces; Storax of two ounces; Yellow Sanders an ounce: Cloves two drachms; two or three bits of Florentine Orrice, half the Peel of a Lemon, two Nutmegs, half an ounce of Cinnamon, two quarts of Rose-water, a pint of Orange Flower-Water, and a pint of magisterial Balm-water. Put the whole into an alembic well-luted; distill in a water bath; and what you draw off will prove an exquisite Angelic Water.– “The Toilet of Flora” printed in London in 1779.
PLEASE NOTE: A true hydrosol should be specifically distilled for the hydrosol, not as a co-product or even a by-product of essential oil distillation. The plant’s cellular water has many components; most are lost under pressurized short steam runs for essential oil or by using dried material. We recommend that the producers specifically distill for a product by using plant material that is fresh.
Key Use ~ Orris root Concrète and oil are best used in fine perfumery.
Use the essential oils in moderation. Use the herb tea, juice, or resin when it is more appropriate.
Often, the herbal use is preferred over the distillate, oil, or hydrosol.
Jeanne Rose Collection of Orris Concrète and dried rhizome
CONTRAINDICATIONS ~ Web MD states that Orris root may not be used freshly dug and eaten “as it is possibly unsafe to use the fresh plant juice or root. It can cause severe irritation of the mouth, as well as stomach pain, vomiting, and bloody stools.2.”
1.Mabberley, D. J. Mabberley’s Plant-Book, 3rd edition, 2014 printing, Cambridge University Press.
3.Rose, Jeanne. Herbal Body Book, published by www.jeannerose.net/books.html. P. 314.
Anonis, Danute Pajaujis: Flower Oils and Floral Compounds in Perfumery, Perfumer and Flavorist. 1993.
Arctander, Steffen. Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin
Coombes, Allen J. Dictionary of Plant Names. Timber Press, Oregon, 1985
Piesse, Septimus. The Art of Perfumery. 1867
Rose, Jeanne. 375 Essential Oils and Hydrosols. Berkeley, California: Frog, Ltd., 1999
Rose, Jeanne. The Aromatherapy Book: Applications & Inhalations. San Francisco, California:
Rose, Jeanne. Herbal Studies Course. Jeanne Rose, California: 1992
5 thoughts on “ORRIS ROOT – a profile”
Your blogs and website are always a source of inspiration for me. I took your Herbal and Aromatherapy Course in early 2000-2002 or so. Took me awhile to complete because I had a small little girl and study was usually at night. I have had a small retail store since 2002 and use so many of your herbal ideas and info in my products. Thank you!
Thank you for your comments. I still have my home courses on my website and appreciate you telling your customers about them and the books.
I remember my mom always had a big jar of smoothed root slices for babies to chew at her midwifery clinic that looked very similar to the ones in the photo.
Thank you! It’s a beautiful article. There isn’t anywhere out there you can find more information.
Brilliant and inspiring, as always! I have ordered my Iris pallida from Old House Gardens. I’m printing and saving this blog post so I can remind myself over the coming years how to care for and preserve my own homegrown Orris root. Thank you!
Thank you leenie, You have a 5-year adventure ahead of you. Only a plant and aroma-lover can understand this.