Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Stinking iris

Stinking iris (Iris foetidissima) is widespread in dry places in woodland, hedge banks and scrubby sea-cliffs throughout southern England, and has been introduced and escaped elsewhere.  Its dull purple, or grey-streaked yellow, flowers are unspectacular, but in the autumn its seedpods split open to reveal vivid orange seeds.  At present  stinking iris seems to be spreading, possibly due to it being appreciated as a hardy garden plant, the seeds of which provide interest throughout the winter.

Stinking IrisStinking iris seems to have attracted little folklore.  Approximately 30 local names have been recorded, some of these being corruptions of its alternative name gladdon, and others referring  to the fact that its crushed leaves supposedly smell like roast beef.  Like black bryony (Tamus communis) and lords-and-ladies (Arum maculatum), both of which produce colourful fruit, stinking iris became associated with snakes, and thus acquired such names as snake’s fiddles on the Isle of Wight, and snake’s food, snake’s meat and snake’s poison, all in Devon.

There are occasional records of stinking iris being used as a purge.  James Britten and Robert Holland in their Dictionary of English Plant-names, 1886, record the name ‘spurge-wort’, from Purbeck, Dorset, ‘because the iuyce of it purgeth’, and according to John Gerard in his Herball, or General Historie of Plants, 1597:

‘Having a purging qualitie … the country people of Sommersetshire have good experience, who use to drink the decoction of this roote.  Others do take the infusion thereof in ale and such like, wherewith they purge themslves, and that unto very good purpose and effect.’

In the 1990s this use was discussed in the newsletter Plant-lore Notes & News, where in July 1995, David Allen, who was then working with Gabrielle Hatfield on their Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition, 2004, wrote:

‘Its recommendation as a purge … goes all the way back to the Anglo-Saxon Lacnunga.  According to Grigson’s Englishman’s Flora, this was because of its (probably spurious) identification with xuris, to which Dioscorides ascribed numerous virtues.  Turner, Gerard and Parkinson in their successive herbals, cite contemporary folk use of it for this purpose.  Parkinson indeed says this was by ‘many of our country people in many places’, implying that the practice was still common in the 17th century.  Surprisingly, however, there are hardly any more recent records and the strictly folk ones are from the southern counties of England.                                                                                The modern folk usage of the herb is, rather, Irish in the main – for sore throats and mumps, the leaves or stalks being first roasted and sewn together and worn around the neck (or, alternatively, kept in place with a scarf).  The juice is believed to bring down the swelling  … I have picked up two records, both Irish and both … for dropsy.  The plant has also been in folk use for cramp (in Somerset), scarlatina (in Tyrone) and the healing of wounds (in several parts of Ireland.’

The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, contains a:

Cwlwn cariad, “lovers’ knot” [from Glamorgan], made of Iris foetidissima leaves as made c.1840.  These in some parts were used at “wishing wells” as votive offerings in “silent wishing”. Donated by Mrs Story Maskelyne, January 1910.’

If seems unlikely that stinking iris leaves were particularly sought after for such purposes, and it is probable that any similar leaves could be used equally well.

Images:  main, beside the River Derwent, Derby, March 2019;  upper inset, Elberry Cove, Torbay, south Devon, November 2018; lower inset, Tooting Common, London Borough of Wandsworth, June 2019.

Edited 8 October 2022.