The Iris:  Is it or Is it NOT Poisonous??!! What Do the Studies, and History Say?

The Iris: Is it or Is it NOT Poisonous??!! What Do the Studies, and History Say?

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Some say its highly toxic to man and beast and stay far, far away!  Some say it’s good for cancer-related issues, eye health, and a great anti-oxidant!  Who is right?!  Diving into this issue began with bringing home two iris roots from a private property we had permission to forage on.  We research everything we forage for, so before we did anything with it, we began researching.  Here is what we found, controversy and all.

Bioactive constituents of Iris hybrida (Iridaceae): Processing effect 

“Iris genus plants are a valuable source of bioactive compounds, which are an important component for pharmaceutical development. “

Exploring the Use of Iris Species: Antioxidant Properties, Phytochemistry, Medicinal and Industrial Applications

The genus Iris from the Iridaceae family consists of more than 262 recognized species. It is an ornamental and medicinal plant widely distributed in the Northern Hemisphere. Iris species convey a long history as valuable traditional drugs with a wide variety of applications in various cultures, having been recorded since medieval times. Currently, Iris spp. still find application in numerous fields, including cosmetics, pharmaceutics and the food industry. Moreover, many of their empirical uses have been validated by in vitro and in vivo studies, showing that Iris spp. exhibit potent antioxidant, anticancer, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective, neuroprotective and anti-microbial properties.”

In Morocco, the rhizomes of Iris species, commonly known as Orris roots, are used as one of the many ingredients in Ras el hanout, a Moroccan spice blend [8]. Similarly, I. germanica L. rhizomes are peeled and used as a flavoring in ice cream, confectionery, baked products and alcoholic beverages [7,9]. In Southern Europe, Iris species are still grown for commercial purposes and are used in tooth powder, toothpaste and teething rings [10], while in the cosmetic field, some Iris spp., such as I. florentina L. and I. germanica L., are currently used in the manufacturing of high-priced luxury perfumes and lotions such as “Iris Ganach”©, Guerlain; “Extravagance d’Amarige”©, Givenchy; “Chanel 19”©; and “So pretty”©, Cartier [10–13]. ”

” Iris species are mainly applied orally (66%) or topically (31%) to treat and relieve a wide range of health conditions (Figure 2). Flowers (24%) and rhizomes (20%) are the most frequently used parts in folk medicine, whereas decoction is the main method for the preparation of remedies (22%) (Figure 2)”

In the Trans-Himalayan region of India, I. lactea Pall is locally known as “Dres-ma”. The whole plant is dried and powdered and a decoction is made and consumed orally to increase appetite and treat stomach cramps, small and large intestinal obstruction and food-poisoning dis-orders [26]. Moreover, diverse ethnics groups in the same region use I. hookeriana Foster-based paste as an expectorant and to treat sore throats [27]. They grind the dried roots into a powder and blend it with ghee/butter to prepare an oral paste [27]. Furthermore, the native tribes in the Lahaul and Spiti valleys take 10 g of seed powder orally to eliminate stomach worms and prevent the burning sensation [28]. Native American Indians (Cher-okee) drink the tea made from the rhizomes of Iris spp. for gastrointestinal, renal and bladder problems [7]. Cherokee Indians also utilize a paste made from crushed rhizomes of I. virginica L. as a skin ointment [7].”

In Turkey, the rhizomes, roots and flowers of I. persica L., I. germanica L. and I. caucasica Hoffm are consumed as a snack (either alone or with bread) [31–34]. In Italy, I. ger-manica L. rhizomes are used for respiratory diseases, to strengthen children’s teeth, against chilblains and as a vomiting agent [35]. “

The report the above quotes came from contains a long table of ethnic uses of the Iris species.

This same paper contains as exhaustive a list as they could dig up, of the various nutritional/medicinal compounds found across the Iris spp genus around the world, and gives a lengthy table outlining the various flavinoids, isoflavones, anti-oxidants, and other compounds present in the roots, rhyzomes, leaves and flowers.  Compounds such as:

  • Gallic acid (1) Anticancer, cardioprotective, neurodegenerative diseases prevention, ameliorative for metabolic diseases
  • Ferulic acid (6) Ultraviolet absorption, antioxidant, anti-aging for skin, anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective
  • p-coumaric acid (11) Food preservation, skin-lightening, antimicrobial properties.
  • Flavonoids are listed such as flavinols, anthocyanins, isoflavones, apigenin, quercetins,
  • Kaempferol 3-O-galactoside (92) Antioxidant, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory
  • Rutin (102) Antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, improving blood flow, cardioprotective

Various plants in the Iris genus were tested against breast cancer, skin cancer, kidney cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, cervical cancer, and leukemia, and in general, were found to be highly effective!

Iris compounds have also been tested to be neuroprotective, liver (hepato) protective, anti-parasitic, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, and two breeds that lower blood sugar (good for diabetics).

Despite what various sources try to say, according to searches run online, official reports of toxicity have not been published.  This is in direct contradiction to what the Herbal PDR Small and Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada say.

Herbal PDR Small

“Side Effects: diarhea, bloody, irritated mucous membrane, skin irritation, vomiting”

“Orris root is the root of Iris germanica, Iris versicolor and other varieties.

Other Names: Iris, Florentine Orris, White Flag Root, Blue Flag, Flag Lily, Liver Lily, Poison Flag, Snake Lily, Water Flag, Wild Iris, Yellow Flag, Yellow Iris, Dragon Flower, Myrtle Flower, Fliggers, Flaggon, Sheggs, Segg, Daggers, Jacob’s Sword, Gladyne”

Note: Gladdon is Sweet flag (Acorus), not an Iris member at all.

Thanks to notes such was what is found above in the Herbal PDR Small, we get people confusing sweet flag and iris! There are versions of sweet flag that ARE poisonous! It is thoroughly possible that this confusion is caused due to some variants of Iris having Acornus in the latin name: Water Iris from the north for example, is called Seggs, but it’s latin name is: acornus palustris or Limniris pseudacorus.

EDIT June 1, 2024:

Gerard’s Herbal gives both Latin names:

“The second is called in Latin, Iris Palustris lutea, Pseudoacorus, and Acornus palustris: in English, Water-flags, Fleur-de-lys, or Water Fleur-de-lys: and in the North they call them Seggs.”

A recent paper I read that discusses Iris among a large number of other plants, mentions yellow flag or Water Flag as containing the same toxic compounds as Foxglove!

“Limniris pseudacorus was judged by Targioni Tozzetti as a plant with an unpleasant and acrid taste, whose rhizomes are usable in extreme cases of starvation provided that Procedure 2 (Table 1) is followed.

For human nutrition, Mattirolo [19] did not consider the use of rhizomes. He only mentioned the seeds which, if roasted, present a valid coffee substitute as was used in France and England [139].

Most of the compounds are mainly accumulated in the rhizomes such as quinones, cardiac glycosides (digoxin, digitoxin, ouabain) and isoflavones; the presence of phenolic compounds was mentioned for flowers and leaves [140,141]. The leaves, and especially the rhizomes, of this species contain an irritating resinous substance called irisin. If ingested this plant can cause severe gastric disturbances [128], skin irritations, and allergies in some people [127].”

Considering just how dangerous the Digitalis heart medication is, synthesized from the Foxglove plant, it is safe to say that Limniris pseudacorus is one variant of Iris whose root you want to steer clear of 1000%.  This doesn’t mean steering clear of ALL Iris plants however, nor even of this Iris’s flowers and leaves, just don’t go near the root with a 10 ft pole!

Pseudo isn’t in the Latin name for nothing either.  Yellow Flag is typically not considered a true member of the Iris family, but because it is so similar visually and in nomenclature, it gives the entire Iris family a bad name in much the same way that Sweet Flag does.

end edit

Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada classifies Western blue flag: Iris missouriensis and northern blue flag: iris versicolor as poisonous. Irisin is said to be an irritant. But they go on to say that indigenous peoples crushed and applied the rhizome of the Iris to teeth to reduce pain, and applied to skin to reduce swelling, sooth burns or sores.

What is noted in the paper however, is that pregnant women, nursing women, and people with ulcerative colitis, stomach/intestinal infections, or Crohn’s, should not eat or use this plant for medicine. This paper was published in March 2022, while the Herbal PDR copy I have was copyrighted in 2000, and the Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada in 2014.


A more realistic description of Blue Flag is as follows:

Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine published in 2016

“Blue Flag, Wild Iris
Description Perennial growing to about 3 ft (1 m). Has erect stems and long sword-shaped leaves. Each stem bears 3–5 resplendent blue to violet flowers with white-veined areas on the petals.

Habitat & Cultivation Blue flag is native to North America. Preferring damp and marshy areas in the wild, it is also widely cultivated as a garden plant. The rhizome is unearthed in autumn.

Part Used Rhizome.
Constituents Blue flag contains triterpenoids, salicylic, and isophthalic acids, a very small amount of volatile oil, starch, resin, an oleoresin, and tannins.

History & Folklore
Blue flag was one of the medicinal plants most frequently used by Native Americans. Different tribes made use of it variously as an emetic, cathartic, and diuretic, to treat wounds, and for colds, earache, and cholera. In the AngloAmerican Physiomedicalist tradition, blue flag was
used as a glandular and liver remedy.

Blue flag is Quebec’s provincial flower.

Medicinal Actions & Uses
Blue flag is currently used mainly to detoxify the body. It increases urination and bile production, and has a mild laxative effect. This combination of cleansing actions makes it a useful herb for chronic skin diseases such as acne and eczema, especially where gallbladder problems or constipation contribute to the condition. Blue flag is also given for biliousness and indigestion. However, in large doses blue flag will itself cause vomiting. The traditional use of blue flag for gland problems persists. It is also believed by some to aid weight loss.

Cautions Excessive doses cause vomiting. Do not take this plant during pregnancy”

According to one study of Iris plants in Kurdistan, the compound Iridal has anti-malarial properties, and several compounds showed action against Leukemia and ovarian cancer, and one compound showing anti-ulcer activity.

In one observation of the creation of “Iris Butter”, this study shares:

“According to the traditional procedure, decorticated rhizomes of some Iris species (e.g., I. germanica, I. pallida, I. florentina) are kept in a dry and aerated environment for 2–3 years, then powdered, incubated with diluted sulphuric acid, and steam-distilled to provide the precious “orris butter”. The mechanism of the oxidative degradation affording irones from iridals is still poorly understood. The traditional process is long, troublesome and low yielding; hence, the high cost of the essence (butter). Purification of the essence eliminates the fatty acids and yields the absolute, which is sold at several thousands of dollars per kilogram”

The researchers for this study were able to isolate Resveratrol in the rhizomes, and L-Tryptophan in the arial parts of the Iris plants they tested in Kurdistan.

This study also found anti-viral, blood-sugar-lowering, anti-cancer, neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory properties as well as sedative, anti-oxidant and cholesterol regulating properties in the Iris species.

This paper had been published January 26th, 2021.

Why are the dates of these papers important??? Because of screenshots like the following!!!

Notice the dates given for the various search results in the left hand search result page. I thought I’d try the same search query in DuckDuckGo. Hmmm.

After what we just read from various studies, and from various books about the various compounds these people claim are poisonous, it’s safe to say not everyone knows what they are talking about!

I clicked on the toxicology link and found more conflicting information. In the studies above where they learned of ethnic uses, one of those uses was in veterinary circumstances, and they describe how they made the medicine they gave to their cattle. In this article however, they claim the Iris can result in serious illness and death for cattle and pets.

I then went to the article’s sources. One link ted to a book on Amazon, so no way to verify where that source got it’s info without buying the book. Another link discussed contact dermatitis from vegetation. This is quite common, and if we avoided all plants that give us rashes, we’d never have discovered how beneficial Stinging Nettle, Pig Weed (er, amaranth), Great Mullein, and others are to overall human health and function. The trick is in how you pick them. You don’t go at them with bare hands, you wear garden gloves! For nettle and pokey plants such as blackberry or hawthorn or even the thistle family, you also wear long sleeves and long pants.

Going back to the search results, I clicked on the first link in the DDG result. The symptoms given here for toxicity are the same as given in the Herbal PDR Small. These symptoms are only noted by researchers if excessive amounts of the plant have been ingested!!! A reality that apparently even the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals failed to take into consideration.

Strangely enough, the author of the first link, after claiming extreme toxicity, goes on to talk about how the plants were used in medicine, before claiming it should only be used in aromatherapy applications!

About the only benefit this article states that is useful after such a confusing presentation, is that those Iris known as water Iris varieties, have been known to purify water by removing heavy metals through their roots. Unfortunately, there is no link to visit to check on this claim in this article.

This is a clear case in point, where you don’t EVER stop your research at a handful of links and say its done! For the DDG search, just a few links further down the results reveal the actual research from various sources that prove everything that you’ve read here today, and potentially more than what’s been included in this article as well.

Preparation can mean the difference between healthy and unhealthy, safe and unsafe. This is the case with potatoes, chokecherry, Iris, Hound’s Tongue, Mountain Ash, and others.

Let’s look at Iris preparation for use according to older texts such as the following:

Culpepper in his book, The Complete Herbal, says to cook fresh root, in honey and spikenard, or just boil it in water to drink. You can also boil it in water and vinegar. If iris root is not boiled, apply topically only.

Dioscorides in his book, De Materia Medica, explains that the root when cut, should be dried in the shade before use. It can be taken as drink with honey water, or with vinegar or wine, and the decoction can be drunk or used topically on the skin or as an eye salve made with honey. He also discusses making an oil infusion of it.

Gerard’s herbal also says to dry Iris root before use. He says you can distill the root or flower like you would rose water. He too mentions boiling the root. He discusses making juice from the fresh root by pounding and then cooking or cooking and then pounding.

If the people of Turkey, Kurdistan, and other countries have been eating Iris without the negative side effects for eons, they must be doing something right.

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