Orris Root: The Perfume Spice

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Orris root is made from the rhizome of the iris flower, which is best known for its colorful blooms. The flower from which orris root comes is native to the Mediterranean region, but it can also be found in parts of Asia as well as in North Africa.

Orris root has been used as far back as ancient Egypt. The Egyptians utilized it as a perfume and for incense. It was also used in ancient Greece and in ancient Rome as well. It was considered a valuable medicine by Dioscorides and by Pliny. Even though it had medical applications, it was primarily used to make perfumes. It was often combined with anise and the scent applied to linens.

The iris plants from which orris root is derived were cultivated in the region around Florence, Italy in the Middle Ages. The traditional preparation involved digging the roots up in August and peeling them. The peeled roots would be dried until they appeared to be chalky. The drying process for orris root can take five years or longer.

European cooks used orris root as a spice in the 1500s and 1600s. It was also used in perfumes during this time. In the Victorian era, orris root was used as an addition to a range of cosmetic products such as pomades and pomanders.

Orris root was still in widespread use in the 20th century and is thought to be one of the main scents in the famous Chanel No5 perfume. It was still widely available in the US as recently as the 1950s but has since become a rarity. You are likely to have a hard time finding orris root in brick and mortar retailers, aside from a few specialty stores.

Orris root flavor profile

Orris root is decidedly floral in terms of its fragrance. It smells like violets. The floral nature of the scent is so strong that it may be difficult to associate it with food. The flavor in the mouth has strong licorice notes. As a result, it is best used in combination with other more pungent spices.

Health benefits of orris root

You can use orris root to treat or prevent various health conditions, including:

  • High blood pressure: Orris root is a diuretic, which means that it helps to increase the amount of water and salt passed out of the body as urine. The diuretic effect means that it can be useful for treating high blood pressure. Powdered orris root is better for this purpose.
  • Inflammation: One of orris root’s traditional uses is to stem inflammation. The fresh root is the better form if you want this benefit.
  • Respiratory ailments: Orris root can be steeped in water and the resulting drink used as a treatment for whooping cough or bronchitis.
  • Halitosis: A tea made from orris root combined with mint leaves has been used as a traditional treatment for bad breath.

Common uses of orris root

These days, orris root’s use is rarely culinary; instead, its essential oil is used in perfumes to enhance other aromas. It is sometimes used in Morocco as an ingredient in ras el hanout. In that spice blend, it can be combined with 20 or more other spices to create a complex flavor profile. Another use for orris root is in the making of gin. It is believed to add depth to gin’s juniper and angelica notes; however, it is used in very small amounts and its flavor is not one of the predominant ones.

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