Words On Wellness: The Iris. A Purple Jewel
Our native iris is a common and lovely purple jewel found in clumps along coastal California to southern Oregon, with scattered locations inland. Most of the year its leaves are lost in grasslands or hidden in shadows of mixed redwood forest, until it bursts forth from its fleshy bulb with a vibrant tryptic of various blue to violet shades. While this bulb prefers part or full shade and richer soils it is fastest growing on the sandy sun-exposed headlands where fog is its friend.
This widely distributed species, Douglas Iris (Iris douglasiana) grows mainly at elevations, below 330 feet, though it is occasionally found up at 3,300 feet. It was named after botanist David Douglas but local Native Americans had long been using the strong leaf fibers for fish nets and rope. Rope was made from fibers taken only from the outside of each leaf. The leaves were gathered in large bundles and a single silky fiber pulled from each margin of the leaf. None of the other fibers was used. Using a mussel-shell or abalone "thumbnail" women stripped the fibers from the leaves, then scraped them clean. Men twisted the threads on their thighs as they knotted cordage for nets. Despite the tremendous labor (a twelve-foot rope required six weeks to make), threads and cords of iris fiber were used to make fishing nets, camping bags and snares for catching deer, birds, and other game.
Wild iris leaves were part of other aspects of native culture as well. The Pomo placed acorn meal in a shallow pit and covered the meal with iris leaves before pouring water over the meal to leach out tannic acid. Babies were wrapped in the soft green leaves to keep them cool and prevent dehydration while their mothers collected manzanita berries. Since the leaves are fine and can be bent at sharp angles, it also made (and still does) an excellent starting knot in coiled baskets.
Other parts of the plant are medicine too. A poultice of the raw root was traditionally used externally for infected wounds, ulcers, and fistulas, although for some skin types it can cause dermatitis. The flower remedy of iris nurtures those who lack inspiration or suffer procrastination. It is perfect for anyone engaged in or exploring creative arts since it stimulates intuition and clear seeing.