Although the German iris, also known as Iris germanica, is native to the Mediterranean region, this plant is now commonly cultivated in gardens throughout the United States and Europe. While the wild form of this iris species is generally lilac in color, numerous hybrids are readily found in a wide assortment of colors. Like its close relatives, the Florentine orris (I. florentina) and Harlequin blue flag (I. versicolor), the German iris shares an interesting and extensive history.
Some records indicate that the Iris germanica plant can be traced back to the late 1500s. The dried root, which smells like violets, was commonly used in ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt as a fragrance, flavoring and cosmetic ingredient. Although the aroma intensifies as it ages, curing the root can take up to three years or more. Once dry, the ground up root can be used in potpourri, sachets, perfumes, and lotions.
The root can be steam distilled as well to produce a cream-colored butter and extract that can be found in many beverages and baked foods. It is also used as a flavoring agent in candy and as an ingredient in some dental products. In addition to its history of use as both a fragrance and culinary agent, Iris germanica has numerous medicinal uses.
The root has a long history of use as a diuretic. It increases urine flow and has been employed in the past to help treat problems with water retention and edema. The plant has profound usage as a stomachic as well. It has been prescribed to help stimulate digestion, improve appetite, and relieve colic. Iris germanica root fingers are thought to have originated in Germany. These were given to babies and used as inexpensive replacements for coral and ivory teething rings.
Iris germanica was at one point a common treatment for various lung conditions. Its purgative and expectorant qualities make it an excellent remedy for loosening mucus and excess phlegm. Remedies derived from this plant can help relieve coughs and colds, bronchitis, congestion, and sore throat. In addition, a salve prepared from the root has been shown to help speed up the healing of minor wounds when applied.
There is a downside to using German iris remedies. Iris germanica, like its relatives, can induce nausea and vomiting, especially when taken in large doses. The plant can also cause severe gastrointestinal problems. Some people may exhibit skin irritation as well. As with any home remedy, the care of an experienced practitioner is advised.