Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Orris Root: Perfume and Preservative

Dried orris root smells like violets. It is coveted not only for its soft and sweet fragrance but also for its strong and protective chemical properties. In combination with weaker botanicals, orris root acts as a fixative that prolongs their aromas and preserves their organic structures without overpowering their unique fragrances.

Also known as Iris Florentine, orris root is the collective term for the roots of three species of European Iris (germanica, florentina, and pallida) common in landscapes throughout the world and commercially cultivated in southern Europe, the eastern Mediterranean region, northern India, and northern Africa. The iris is the royal flower depicted in the symbol of imperial France, the fleur de lis.

Orris root is harvested from iris plants that are at least three years old. The roots are peeled and left to dry. Fresh orris root has an earthy smell and acrid taste (it puckers your mouth). As it dries, the bitter taste mellows and it acquires the strong yet delicate scent of fresh violets – described as tenaciously flowery, heavy, and woody. This aroma takes two to five years to fully develop but is then retained and may further intensify over time.

The flowery scent of orris root is contained in its essential oil. The dried roots are ground into powder, dissolved in water, and distilled. The resulting thick, oily substance is known as orris butter.

Orris butter is one of the most precious materials used by perfumeries, because it strengthens other botanical scents and preserves them from evaporating. It takes one ton of iris roots to produce just 4.5 pounds (2 kilos) of essential oil, making orris butter one of the most expensive raw materials in the world.

The chemical component that causes the violet odor, irone, has been synthesized, and the synthetic version is more commonly used to create cheaper perfumes and other scented products.

Iris Perfumes
I found a list of iris perfumes in which the orris component prevails. After looking at the beautiful bottles and reading the poetic descriptions that sound like exotic spice blends, I couldn’t resist putting together a little carasol shop to show you.

Infusion d'Iris (Prada)
Mandarin, galbanum, orange, orange blossom, iris, cedar, vetiver, incense, and benzoin.

Tumulte (Christian Lacroix)
Mandarin orange, freesia, rose, orris, heliotrope, rose, tonka bean, patchouli, and musk.

Iris Nobile (Aqua di Parma)
Orange, mandarin, bergamot, anise, iris, orange blossom, ylang-ylang, tuberose, mimosa, and woodsy cedar.

Irisia (Creed)
Bergamot, iris, tuberose, violet, ambergris, and amber

Y (Yves Saint Laurent)
Peach, aldehydes, gardenia, honeysuckle, narcissus, hyacinth, rose, orris, patchouli, vetiver, civet, and benzoin.

Vol de Nuit (Guerlain)
Galbanum, daffodil, iris, oriental, spicy, daffodil, and woody.

Medicinal Use of Orris Root
Iris leaves and flowers are toxic. Although orris root is edible, it is a potent medicinal herb with diuretic, emetic, anti-inflammatory, and cathartic properties and should only be taken in small amounts. Too much will cause nausea and vomiting, and it should be kept away from children and pets. Orris root is also highly allergenic and can cause severe reactions such as hay fever, asthma, and cold symptoms. Orris root powder was at one time used as snuff to cause exaggerated sneezing and relieve sinus headache. Because of the high number of people who are allergic to it, cosmetics labeled hypoallergenic cannot contain orris root (also labeled as iris florentine).

The beneficial medicinal properties are usually imparted in tea or capsule form. The dried root is sometimes chewed as a breath freshener, but it should not be swallowed.

Non-Food Use of Orris Root
Orris root is most commonly known as a fixative that enhances and prolongs other scents and preserves botanical ingredients.
  • Flavoring in liquors (especially gin)
  • Commercial cleaning, cosmetic, and body products
  • Homemade recipes for natural soaps, body powders, and toothpaste
  • Sachets, potpourris, and pomanders (citrus fruit covered with cloves)
  • Inedible food crafts such as spice-cookie ornaments and rose-petal beads
  • Incense

Ras el Hanout Spice Blend
Powdered orris root is a well known ingredient in ras el hanout, an exotic blend of up to 30 spices used extensively in Moroccan, Middle Eastern, and North African cuisines in nearly every kind of food. The name means “top of the shop,” and it is a point of pride among Moroccan spice sellers (souks) to use the very best of each spice. Orris root adds a floral fragrance to this spice blend.

There is no definitive combination of spices that makes up ras el hanout. Each shop, company, or person has their own secret combination containing at least a dozen spices, which typically includes cardamom, clove, cinnamon, ground chili peppers, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, peppercorn, and turmeric.

Some recipes can include over one hundred ingredients, including little-known spices such as ash berries, chufa, cubeb pepper, grains of paradise, lavender, monk's pepper, and rosebuds. Usually all ingredients are toasted and then ground up together. The flavor of ras el hanout is described as spicy, sweet, floral, and savory. It is similar to curry, with a spicy kick. It has a floral fragrance and many subtle nuances, with an overall robust flavor. It also adds a golden color to food.

Ras el Hanout Recipe

The 16 ingredients in the Luna Café ras el hanout recipe

If you want to create your own from scratch, this 16-ingredient ras el hanout recipe by Susan S. Bradley at The Luna Café is inspiring, yet manageable. Her ingredients include black peppercorns, white peppercorns, mace, turmeric, rosebud petals, ginger, galangal, orris root, lavender, anise seed, crushed red pepper, allspice, cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon.

Pre-Made Ras el Hanout

Pre-made ras el hanout from Zamouri Spices

If you want to try an authentic version before investing in so many expensive spice ingredients, this affordable ras el hanout from Zamouri Spices is highly recommended. It was featured in The Oprah Magazine and contains over 35 herbs and spices, including grains of paradise, lavender, turmeric, ajawan seeds, kala jeera (black cumin), ginger, galangal, orris root, rosebuds, monk’s pepper, and cinnamon.



  1. I am a huge gardener and grow the common herbs. I do have a variety of iris plants and they are bulbs given to me from other gardeners. I do not know the type or history of the bulbs. How do I identify my iris plants to know if I have the type you are describing. Great article.