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Iris florentina, which is commonly referred to as orris root and Florentine iris, is an iris species native to Italy. The plant has white blooms tinged with lavender and emits a violet-like aroma. The iris's rhizomatous root, which resembles ginger and smells like potatoes, can be steam-distilled to create a cream-colored, waxy substance called orris butter. An essential oil can be obtained from this as well. The roots and oil of Iris florentina has been used for hundreds of years.
Greeks and Romans valued orris root for cosmetics and perfumery, and it is still commonly found in soaps and perfumes. Used in potpourri, the oil blends well with other scents such as rose, cassis, bergamot, and lavender. The dried rhizomes are also used to freshen up linen closets. A downside to this is the fact that it takes anywhere from three to five years of drying before orris root develops its full fragrance.
The roots of Iris florentina are generally dug up in late summer, peeled, and then dried until chalky in appearance. Once dried, the orris root can also be ground into a powder and used as a flavoring agent. In fact, both the butter and its extract can be found in a variety of beverages, baked goods, gelatins, and chewing gum. Orris root can be found in toothpastes and breath fresheners as well. The powdered root has also been used in talcum powder and was once used as hair powder.
The plant extract from Iris florentina has a long history of use in homeopathic medicine as well. The essential oil was often prescribed to treat dropsy, or swelling from an accumulation of water. The dried root is considered a diuretic and expectorant. It can be taken internally to treat coughs as well as diarrhea.
The root has also been used as a cosmetic and the removal of freckles. In fact, orris root is great for the skin, reducing wrinkles and improving skin hydration and elasticity. Applied externally, orris root is thought to help with healing wounds as well. Additional benefits from the use of Iris florentina include the treatment of bronchitis, digestion, liver and kidney problems. Bleached rhizomes were often used by teething infants to relive pain and a snuff could be prepared to relieve sinus headaches.
In addition to the various products containing Iris florentina, orris root can be purchased in tablets, powdered, or chopped form. While orris root is deemed relatively safe for most people, the leaves and rhizomes contain an irritating substance and may cause skin irritations or allergies in some people. Additionally, the fresh plant juice or root can cause severe irritation of the mouth, stomach pain, vomiting, and bloody diarrhea.