What is Orris Root?
The orris root powder of culinary use (and the most fragrant variety) comes from the rhizome of Florentine iris, one of a vast family of plants grown primarily for their magnificent blooms, that are so popular for decorating garden beds in spring and early summer. Although sometimes called ‘flag irises‘ these are not to be confused with ‘sweet flag‘ (calamus) which is also sometimes called ‘wild irls‘ ln the United States.
The irises from which orris root powder is produced are native to the eastern Mediterranean region. They extended into northern India, North Africa and were cultivated for their rhizomes in southern Europe. Such is the beauty and variety of colors in this family that it is no wonder they were named after the rainbow goddess ‘Iris’.
Orris root was used in perfumery in ancient Greece and Rome and its medicinal qualities were appreciated by Theophrastus, Dioscorides and Pliny. During the Middle Ages Iris Germanica florentina and I. pallida were cultivated in northern Italy, and this is why the ancient heraldic arms of the city of Florence were a white iris on a red shield, an indication that it was renowned for the growth of this plant.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, orris root was used in cooking, however its popularity as a fragrance appeared to outweigh its culinary applications, the majority of violet perfumes having more orris, or extract of orris, in them than actual violets. The exception being where orris root powder still features in Morocco as one of the exotic ingredients in the fragrant and heady spice blend ras el hanout.
The Florentine iris is an attractive perennial plant with bluish-green, narrow, flat, swordlike leaves 1-1 in. (3-4 cm) wide. The flower stems reach to 3 ft. (1 m) and higher and bear either white flowers tinged with violet and a yellow beard, or pure white flowers with no beard. Orris root powder is pale-cream to white in color, is very fine-textured like talcum powder, and has an aroma distinctly similar to that of violets. The flavor is also floral and has a distinct bitter taste.
Preparation and Storage
The best variety of iris for making orris root powder is I. Germanica florentina. It takes three years for the plants to mature, after which the rhizomes are dug up, peeled, dried and powdered.
The degree of care taken with respect to peeling and preparation of the rhizomes has an important bearing on quality, just as it does when processing the rhizomes of ginger, turmeric, galangal and other rootstock spices. Premium grade Florentine iris is almost white in color, while less carefully peeled orris root may yield a powder that is brownish and contains corky, reddishbrown particles of skin.
Orris root powder was readily available from pharmacies in North America in the 1950s, however these days it is necessary to seek out a specialty herb and spice retailer for your supply. Buy it in its powdered form, as it would be too difficult and not worth the effort to grind yourself. Avoid powder that is an off-color or has too many lumps. The powder is a magnet to moisture, so it is essential to store it in an airtight container, well protected from humidity.
For a spice that does not make one think instantly of food, or even cause salivation at the mere whiff of it, there is no substitute for the haunting floral characteristic of orris root in the exotic Moroccan blend ras el hanout. This mixture has a unique aroma and flavor (even when leaving out the illegal substances) that is partially created by the 20 plus different spices in the recipe, and also without doubt, by the inclusion of orris root powder. It has a scent similar to violets; whilst popular in the 1800’s, it is now used to scent and preserve pomander balls, spice wreaths, or sachets. Pomander balls are citrus fruits or small apples into which cloves are inserted in even rows. Roll the pomander in a mixture of orris root and cinnamon.
Health Benefits of Orris Root
The flavonoids of orris root are known to possess anti-inflammatory activity explaining the herb’s traditional use as a remedy for sore throats and colds. Orris root is mildly diuretic; it was traditionally used to treat “dropsy” or congestive heart failure. Orris root that is stored in powdered form is more useful as a diuretic, while orris root that is stored in a chopped form is more useful as an anti-inflammatory.
Where to Buy Orris Root Powder
French: racine d’iris
German: Florentina schwertlilie
Spanish: raiz de iris Florentina
Iris Germanica fiorentina, I. pallida
Recipes using Orris Root
Orris Root Liquer
1 Tbsp Pieces Of Orris Root
1 Fifth Vodka Or Brandy
1 Cup sugar syrup
Steep the orris root in the vodka or brandy for one week in a tightly closed jar, shaking occasionally. Filter through cheesecloth and add the sugar syrup. This may remain a little cloudy, but can be clarified by letting it stand undisturbed for a couple of months and then siphoning off the clear portion. This improves somewhat after standing for a few months. .