The Herb Garden
The Joy of Growing and Using Herbs
by Rachel McLeod
mythology, Iris was the messenger of the gods. She was always depicted with
rainbow wings. And it is from this association that the iris plant got its name.
Certainly irises are the rainbows of the early summer gardens as they range from
the deep purples, browns and bronzes to the delicate sky blue and pink with gold
in between; just to look at them makes one feel inspired, healthy and full of
They are one of the givers of health by their beauty.
Just as the scents of flowers promote healing in aromatherapy, surely the
enjoyment of looking at beautiful flowers must also have a therapeutic effect on
our bodies. However, we can hardly have such a rainbow of irises in the herb
garden: They take up a lot of space and most of them do not have the chemical
constituents to qualify as herbs.
There are a few species of iris, though, which have herbal qualities and are
most welcome in the herb garden. With their sword-like foliage, these plants
will give an architectural accent throughout the year and when in flower will
add a strong yellow, blue or delicate white and blue shimmer to the garden.
These are plants that have been grown and used for a long time. They are part
of the history of North American Indians. There are records since the Middle
Ages of their use by European herbalists and more records show the use of
irises in Egypt as far back as 1540 BC.
The most important herbal use for irises to day is the use of the rhizomes
from certain species to make orris root for use in perfumery and pot-pourri.
Orris root has been one of the most important ingredients in any scent industry
from as far back as the 15th century. The scent is rather like sweet violets but
its real value is in its ability to fix other scents. It is now especially used
in pot-pourri where the oil of the scent required is dropped onto the orris root
and then mixed with the other dried ingredients.
Orris root comes from three closely related irises – Iris germanica, Iris
florentina and Iris pallida. Much of the orris root used today is
grown in Italy. It takes two to three years for the iris to grow to maturity
before the rhizome is harvested. The rhizome should be dug, then peeled and
grated or chopped while still fresh and soft. Then it has to be left to dry for
at least two years before the scent is at maximum strength.
Iris florentina might be the best choice of the three for the herb
garden. It is scented and coloured a whitish mauve, giving what author and
gardener Patrick Lima calls a “blurred opalescent” effect, which will be
enhanced by placing it in front of a darker background.
Quite different herbal irises are the blue and yellow flags – Iris
versicolor and Iris pseudacorus. The former is native to North
America but the yellow iris is an alien from Europe which has made itself at
home here. Both prefer damp soil, unlike the orris root species, which prefer
fairly dry, well drained positions. I find the yellow flag grows magnificently
in a meadow grown over a tile bed. Iris versicolor is smaller but very pretty.
It needs an open, boggy site where it will make large clumps and the blue of the
flowers is a reflection of the sky above.
The roots of these irises have been used medicinally in the past for various
purposes but they have been shown to be a dangerous purgative and should never
be used medicinally at home. The blue flag, however, has been used extensively
by North American Indians for poultices for any type of swelling, burns and
sores. It also has been recorded that the aroma of the root will keep snakes
away. Author and herbalist Charlotte Erichsen-Brown notes that Indians in
Arizona use it in snake dances and will even chew it so that they can safely
take rattlesnakes into their mouths!
The yellow flag has been used in the past medicinally for coughs and bruises
but it too proved too dangerous as a purgative and is not used now.
Finally, an interesting iris, which also used to be used medicinally, goes by
the curious name of roast beef plant because of its odour. Its botanical name is
Iris foetidissima and it is also known as stinking gladwin or gladdon. In
the past it, too, was found to be dangerous and is no longer used. It is an
evergreen perennial, its flowers are not very conspicuous but its main glory is
its seed pods, which are long lasting and open to display brilliant red seeds.
This is a plant I would like to add to my garden, as it prefers to grow in the
shade. It’s one of the plants I’ll be looking for this year.
Rachel McLeod founded Kiln Farm Herb Garden in Puslinch, Ontario in 1974.