By Dr. Martin Schuepbach
Summer 2000 - Issue #20
Next time you meet the glorious colors, curves and scent of an iris flower, look carefully. This is a plant recognized for millennia to have special meaning and benefits for humans. Its name is the key: Iris, the Greek goddess who was the messenger of the gods. Her symbol, the many-colored rainbow- the refraction of sunlight coming through rain, was always seen as a sign of vitality and happiness.
We also use this word for the 'window' of the eye; the colored doorway to the messages that sight brings. Ancient Egyptians decorated their scepter with an iris, said to represent faith, wisdom, and valor. The Romans devoted the iris to their goddess Juno, and used the flowers in ceremonies of purification. From the Middle Ages, the English and the French carried the iris on their coat of arms: the fleur-de-lys, French for iris.
Like the rainbow, the iris plant combines the natural forces of water and light in an unusually powerful way. It is a plant that can adapt to extreme dryness or moisture. The iris's stems are its rhizomes, which grow over the surface of the earth rather than up into the air. They have an amazing ability to store moisture, collected by the roots beneath. By constant adjustment to moisture conditions, the iris always has the reserves to produce its dramatically fast spring growth.
Rhizomes, stalks and leaves have special layers that protect them from drying out. The top of each new leaf looks as though it were covered in dew, but these droplets come from inside the plant, secreted through special cracks, giving each leaf its own moist micro-climate, keeping it smooth and soft.
In Greece, Iris rhizome, or orris root, was used to keep creams and perfumes fresh 3,000 years ago. By the Middle Ages, iris was grown for this use in Britain. You can test for yourself. Dip a pomander, a clove-studded orange, in dried orris powder and it will stay fresh for months, while an untreated pomander quickly dries or rots.
Interestingly, the ability to retain water makes iris a homeopathic remedy for migraine, the head pain caused by pressure of excess fluid to the brain's blood vessels.
In skin care, iris is used to help the skin regulate its moisture level. Iris extract on the skin surface, the outermost epidermal layer, gives an immediate feeling of liveliness. Most skin creams reach only this outer layer, the stratum corneum, while gives skin resilience, and melanin, the pigment, which protects us from sunlight.
Courtesy the British Weleda