When we first planted our herb garden, nearly ten years ago, we planted a ‘knot’ of rosemary and lavender. In all the spaces inside the knot, we planted other herbs—a wide range of thymes, oregano, salad burnet, chives, etc. This iris was one of them (though we’ve since rescued it from being smothered in the knot). It is not a herb we ever intended to use—we just thought it was interesting. It is Iris pallida—the iris that is the source of orris root.
Orris root used to be used medicinally, but today its main attraction is its smell. It is used in perfume and potpourri, and in a Moroccan spice mix called Ras el harout.
I love the word orris, because it’s so clearly a case of dialect confusion. Say ‘iris’ with your teeth clenched, and you’ll get ‘orris’.
I can just imagine how it happened…the doctor calls on a patient in a remote village. He examines the man, and asks the family, “What have you done for him so far?”
“We’ve given ‘im a bit of iris root.”
“What? Orris root?”
“What is orris? I’ve never heard of it.”
“It’s this plant, blue flower, grows down by the creek. I’m sure ye’ve seen it before.”
“Hm.” The doctor scribbles orris root into his notebook, and forever after iris root is known as orris root.