Known for its stately beauty and complex scent, the iris has served as a meaningful symbol and versatile ingredient since ancient Egyptian times. Greeks planted purple irises on the graves of women to lead their souls to the afterlife, while Germans suspended the flower’s bulb in beer barrels to keep their brews fresh. This spring, the elegant bloom is celebrated in beauty launches that harness the myriad benefits found in its valuable extract.
The iris flower itself has no actual scent. Its powdery, heady essence is arrived at only from tediously extracting it from within the plant’s bulb, (also known as orris root or rhizome). The resulting oil has long been used for everything from a treatment for sore throats and heart failure to flavoring for Bombay Sapphire gin, and, most commonly, as a base note in perfumery. The dried powder of the orris root has also been used to scent laundry in medieval times, as a fixative in toothpaste and as a spice in cooking, namely in a Moroccan dish called pastilla.
A host of new spring eaux reinvent iris in their scent compositions. Acqua di Parma’s Iris Nobile Limited Edition pays homage to the flower’s royal heritage, while Donna Karan’s new Iris interprets the flower’s luxury and strength. “Some flowers captivate the imagination. The iris is one,” the designer says of her blend of orris butter, iris absolute, magnolia and violet. “Rare, sensual and alluring, it is aged and then crafted with the artisan hand. You fall in love instantly and forever.”
European royals certainly loved the fl ower. “The iris was on the Medici coat of arms,” says Paola Pagagnini, perfumer for Acqua di Parma, who adds that the fleur-de-lis, a symbol for the French monarchy from the 12th century, is widely considered a stylized version of the flower. “Irises grew prevalently on the Medici estate and were seen as one of the most precious ingredients in perfumery and a symbol of beauty.”
For its part, Bulgari blends iris absolute with mint and fir balsam in Eau d’Eté, while Narciso Rodriguez fuses iris powder and rose petal in Essence Iridescent. Meanwhile, Amorepacific’s Future Response Age Defense Crème
harnesses the iris’ ability to protect against the loss of collagen and elastin, while the bloom’s most common shade—lilac—is found in YSL’s spring eye shadow palette.
The iris, which gets its name from the Greek word for rainbow, blooms in late spring in almost every color, though most commonly in violet, blue and white. There are more than 200 varieties of the flower, which is native to the Mediterranean region and grows bountifully in large fields. Roots are usually harvested after three years.
“It’s probably one of the easiest garden plants to grow,” says Kate Bryant, who runs the botany blog Plantwise and contributed to Flora: A Gardener’s Encyclopedia. “When you see the iris’ tall, slender flowering stem rising from the foliage like a royal scepter, it’s easy to see how the ancients might have viewed it as the royalty of the plant kingdom.”
Donna Karan Iris, $95.
Narciso Rodriguez Essence Iridescent, $78.
Acqua di Parma Iris Nobile Limited Edition, $165.
Amorepacific Future Response Age Defense Crème, $195.
Yves Saint Laurent Ombres 5 Lumières in #9 Parisian Sky, $56.
Bulgari Eau d’Eté, $62.