Herbs in History: Iris
By Alain Touwaide & Emanuela Appetiti | October 2023
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Illustration 1: Iris pallida subsp. illyrica (Tomm. Ex Vis.) K.Richt.
Understanding the Ancient Plant Lore
The history of medicinal plants from the most remote antiquity to yesterday is more than ever on the agenda of research. And, beyond research, it also is omnipresent in daily life and information, from traditional medicines and alimentary and cosmetic products to websites, e-newsletters and others. Few plants offer, however, a key for a deep understanding of the construction of ancient lore, its scientific basis, its cultural values, and, to name just this, its projections of human hopes. Iris is one of such keys, with a great many components from its name and scent to the medicinal properties it was credited with.
Illustration 2: Leonhart Fuchs, Stirpium Historia, Basel,1542: Iris Germanica, hand painted
Illustration 3: Vincent Van Gogh, Irises, 1889
Illustration 4: The rainbow, iris in ancient Greek
A Meaningful Naming
The species known to the ancient Mediterranean world is believed to be the current Illyrian Iris (Iris pallida subsp. illyrica (Tomm. Ex Vis.) K.Richt.) (Illustration 1). Under its blue external color, it hides a unique polychromic palette with the full spectrum of the seven primary colors in the internal parts of its petals: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Hand-painted copies of such Renaissance herbal as the 1542 Stirpium historia by the German physician, therapist, and botanist Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566) often stress this polychromy, typical of the hybrid I. x germanica L. (Illustration 2). Much later, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) immortalized Iris in his paintings (Illustration 3).
With these colors, it is no coincidence that the current name of the genus Iris exactly reproduces the ancient Greek one. Interestingly, this phytonym is the name of the rainbow in ancient Greek, which best embodies the natural palette of the primary colors (Illustration 4). Going beyond this visual connection, this name has deep, powerful meanings that provide important keys to understanding the ancient legacy of phytotherapy, particularly the way of defining the therapeutic action of plants and herbs.
The visual association of the plant Iris with the rainbow opens, indeed, the door to other semantically charged connections. In the ancient Greek mythology, the rainbow was not just the natural light phenomenon that reveals the primary colours, but also—if not above all—a key female personage who, just like the rainbow that builds a bridge between Earth and Heaven, is the messenger that brings communications of the gods to humans. She is usually described and represented as a young fleet-footed girl who travels between the world of the Olympians and that of the humans, to carry messages (Illustration 5).
This chain of associations, from the plant Iris to the rainbow (iris) and from the rainbow to Iris as the messenger of the gods, transforms the whole discourse about Iris (the plant), and opens it onto a reflection on therapeutics and, more generally, medicine, including a vision of nature. According to a saying of the ancient Greek World, indeed, medicines were like the hand of the gods on humans’ head. Still a common sign of affection in today Greece and Mediterranean cultures, this gesture was already present in the ancient world, as a mark of protection. With this hand of the gods on humans’ head, the whole discourse of therapeutics takes a deep dimension. If we de-mythologize it, the ancient saying identifies the natural world as a resource made to help Humankind overcome illness, pain, and suffering, in some sort of providence of nature and solidarity between all the elements of the sublunar world.
Illustration 5: Iris, the messenger of the gods in the ancient Greek world
Back to the Earth
In the most significant sum of the ancient knowledge of medicinal plants, De materia medica by the Greek Dioscorides (1st cent. CE), Iris is the first plant, and it opens the whole work. Again, this is not insignificant. Bearing in mind, the multiple connections evoked above, this first position connects the human discourse on materia medica with the superior world of the Olympians, functioning as a hinge that connects and articulates the two worlds and provides a cosmological explanation on the origin of the therapeutic properties of the natural substances described in Dioscorides’ work and used in physicians’ practice. A providence of the cosmos expressed through nature.
In De materia medica, Iris is described as follows (Book 1, chapter 1), starting with its botanical description:
The Illyrian iris bears leaves like Sword lily (Gladiolus) but longer, wider, and shinier, and flowers parallel on stems, curling, and with many colors … the roots at the basis, are knotty, hard, aromatic.
Illustration 6: Iris in manuscript of Vienna, National Library of Austria, medicus graecus 1, ca. 512, Constantinople, f. 167 verso
This description gathers quite well in a dense, rather essential form the characteristics of Iris, with the elements necessary for correct identification, without any further detail.
Interestingly, the reference to “many colors” is immediately followed by this remark:
.. many colors; indeed, it can be found white, yellow, purple, or bluish. Hence, because of this diversity, it has been equated with the heavenly rainbow.
This phrase sounds rather like a comment introduced by some reader in the margin of a copy of the text and further introduced into the text. In the ancient Greek world, indeed, no reader needed to stress that the name of Iris (the plant) is also that of the rainbow!
Whatever the case, Dioscorides identifies the part to be used (what he calls a root, which is now more exactly defined as a rhizome) (Illustration 6) and explains how to treat it:
After cutting them, you must dry them in the shade, thread them with a linen string, and store them …
In the general considerations that open the work, he specifies that the process of drying must take place in a shady place, well ventilated, without humidity. Dried parts of plants must be kept in well closed containers, possibly in sheets of paper (which, in his time, was made of papyrus).
Illustration 7: Vintage bottle of iris perfume
He then briefly mentions some species, and stresses their major organoleptic qualities in a way that deserves attention:
Illyrian and Macedonian irises are best. Of these [two species], the best [individuals] are those with a dense root, round, and hard to break, light yellow in color, highly aromatic, rather spicy in taste, pure in scent, not humid, and ptarmic when cut …
All these characteristics are correct and clearly indicate a great familiarity with the rhizomes of Iris. It is indeed extremely acrid in a fresh state and pungent if chewed, being ptarmic.
Dioscorides concludes this descriptive part of the chapter with a note of special interest:
With time passing, irises are worm-eaten and become more fragrant.
Both statements are correct, especially the one about the fragrance: over time, Iris rhizome develops a delicate scent similar to that of violet that has been used in perfume-making in the past (Illustration 7).
After this descriptive part, Dioscorides lists all the usages of Iris, distinguishing them by indications and mode of administration. They can be presented as follows, exactly in the same order as in the text, but slightly modifying the layout (cutting the text in paragraphs and numbering them):
All species [of iris] have a warming and reducing property.
They are indicated for [the treatment of] coughs and humors difficult to expectorate, which they liquefy. They eliminate thick humors and [the excess of the two species of] bile [i.e., yellow and black], when administered as a draught with 8 drachms of hydromel.
They help sleep, provoke tears and cure colic.
Taken as a draught with vinegar, they help those bitten by venomous animals, splenetics, spasmatics, hypothermics or shiverers, and those with premature ejaculation.
Taken as a draught with wine, they provoke menstruation.
Their decoction, too, is good for women's vapor baths, softening and opening the genitalia.
It [the decoction] is a clyster for sciatics.
It [the decoction] regenerates flesh in fistulas and open ulcers.
Applied in the form of a collyrium with honey, they [the rhizomes] draw down embryos. Isn’t it for eyes?
Boiled and applied as cataplasms, they soften gland swellings and old indurations.
Dried, they fill up wounds, cleanse them with honey, and restore flesh on open bones.
In cataplasms with vinegar and unguent of roses, they help against headaches.
Smeared with a double quantity of hellebore and honey, they clear away birthmarks and freckles.
They are mixed in pessaries, emollients, and analgesics, and, generally, have multiple uses.
There thus is a distinction by forms of applications: general (nos. 1 and 2), as a draught (nos. 3 and 4), as a decoction (nos. 5-7), and in external use in different ways (nos. 9-11). The collyrium (no. 8) requires some explanation: it is not a medicine for the eyes, but a galenic form, in fact a semi-solid preparation from which physicians took some and applied it on the body. All this is followed by a conclusion (no. 13) about the different forms in which Iris can be used.
Several of these uses share a major property: eliminating and reducing physiological humors and excessive bodily liquids. This is the key for the understanding of both the uses of Iris and ancient pharmaco-therapeutics, as explicitly expressed in the first phrase: Iris has a reductive property, which needs to be understood as a reduction of the quantity of liquids in the body. This reduction is the result of a warming property in a figurative language in which heat does indeed dry.
The definition of this general property opens the enumeration of the applications and usages of Iris and builds a very logical sequence. It is immediately followed by a reference to “[the treatment of] coughs and humors difficult to expectorate”, which they make more fluid. They eliminate “thick humors and [the two species of] bile …”. There is a logical sequence from the “warming and reducing property” to the applications, characterized by an excess of liquid or viscous matter that needs to be eliminated from the body and cannot be due to their viscosity.
Here is the key to the system of which Iris is a good example: the rhizome of Iris is diuretic, emetic, expectorant and purgative, that is, it eliminates matter from the body. This property might even be stronger as the juice of the fresh rhizome is credited with a strong purgative efficacy for the treatment of dropsy.
This property of eliminating liquids from the body was known, having been possibly discovered by random experience in a first time over the centuries and subsequently by repeated trials. It was further translated into abstract terms in a way that is both descriptive (reduction of liquids) and explanatory (warming), the latter by a physical process.
All the ancient system of therapeutics is built on this double mechanism: observation and rationalization, with the latter using simple, almost mechanical terms that express in a concrete way facts empirically noted. This is what Iris tells us, and its position at the very beginning of Dioscorides’ compilation immediately introduces us into this logic, which is both experimental and rational in a clear, simple, almost evident way. And this without supplanting all the cultural background of Iris that was common knowledge in the past, visual, mythological, and highly semantic.
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