American Indian Council
HERB & PLANT MEDICINE WATCH...
Wild Iris - Purdy's
Contributed By: USDA, NRCS, National Plant Data Center
Fresh iris roots may be toxic.
Ethnobotanic: Iris makes some of the
finest cordage. The fibers are particularly strong, flexible, and fine like
silk. Only two fibers can be taken from each iris leaf margin. Huge
bunches of leaves were harvested in the fall and stored until needed. Iris
cordage was used for fishing nets, string, rope, snares, hairnets, and
The men knotted the fishing nets from iris fibers. Animals were captured
with iris rope. A deer rope is nearly 20 feet long with a lasso at one end,
and about half an inch in diameter. A loop was set over a deer trail to
catch the head or antlers. Within the loop positioned over a trail a
delicate network of the same material was spread to draw in the loop. One
Indian stated that "it takes nearly six weeks to make a rope twelve feet
In spite of the tremendous labor of preparing this material, the iris fiber
was one of the most generally employed in northwestern California.
The threads and cords of this fiber were used to make fishing nets, camping
bags and snares for catching game. Since iris is fine and can be bent at
sharp angles, it makes an excellent starting knot in coiled baskets. The
Pomo Indians 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.
The Monache and the Southern Yokuts in California make flour from iris
A poultice of the raw rhizome is especially effective against staph sores.
Used externally, iris is successfully used for infected wounds, ulcers,
fistulas, and to take away freckles. Only the dry root should be used
internally. Iris is active as a cathartic; has a stimulating effect on the
production of both pancreatic enzymes and bile; is a strong diuretic; and
will stimulate both saliva and sweat. This is a useful drug plant, but in
general, should be used with care and preferably in combinations where less
energetic plants form the bulk of a medicinal formula.
& Wildlife: The blossoms lend themselves to
landscaping, where they require minimal maintenance. Native irises are free
flowering, most are long lived, require very little attention, and
provide an abundance of seeds. Iris flowers attract insects and birds.
Irises provide both nectar and insects to hummingbirds.
Status: Please consult the
PLANTS Web site and your State Department of Natural Resources for this
plant's current status, such as, state noxious status and wetland indicator
Description General: Iris Family (Iridaceae).
Purdy's iris has leaves that are shiny green on top, gray-green and glaucous
underneath. Stems and leaves are stained a brilliant mahogany red or cerise
pink. There are two flowers on the tall (12") stem. It has pale
cream-yellow flowers with prominent, brownish purple veins or whitish with
lavender tinges. Flowers bloom in May and June. The rhizomes are 4-6 mm in
Distribution: For current
distribution, please consult the Plant Profile page for this species on the
PLANTS Web site. Purdy's iris is common is open to shady places, in
redwood, north coastal coniferous and mixed evergreen forest
communities, and grows at elevations below 1200m. It occurs in the north
coast of California in the Klamath Ranges and outer North Coast Ranges, from
Sonoma to Humboldt and Trinity Counties.
Establishment: This iris does
not form clumps, must be grown from seed, and is a sparse grower. The
native irises are excellent in shade situations, even dense shade of walls
and fences (Schmidt 1980). They will tolerate sun for most of the day in
mild areas, and should have afternoon shade and ample water in the interior
regions. These plants are intolerant of frequent summer water; they should
not be planted near lawns or other moisture-loving plants. These plants
require excellent drainage; therefore, compacted or other water-holding
soils may need to be modified. Fertilization increases biomass and seed
Irises start growing with the first cool weather and rains in fall, reaching
the height of their growth in spring and early summer. Propagation by Plant
Division: Purdy's iris is not densely rhizomatous, and it is recommended
that the plants be started from seed. However, this iris is still clonal,
radiating in growth outward from the center of the plant. This iris can be
propagated from plant division, in fall or winter after the first new roots
are established but before the flowers form.
Native irises in the wild tend to produce only a small, dry rhizome with
stringy roots which is difficult to dig. Vigorous garden or greenhouse
plants produce firm, white, growing roots especially in winter and spring
growing seasons, and clumps are easily divided at those time. Remove a new
fan with fleshy roots set in a prepared site, water it, and provide shade
for a few days if the plant is placed in full sun. Frequent division
appears to keep the plants vigorous, as well as being the best method of
increasing the supply of superior forms.
Propagation by Seed: Iris seed is
easily collected from the large capsules. The seedpods from Purdy's iris
are sometimes right on the ground, almost like a peanut. The capsules turn
from green to brown and open at the top when they are ripe. You have to
watch them carefully, because they split very rapidly and two days later the
seed is dispersed. Collect capsules carefully to avoid spilling seeds; each
capsule has from 20 to 80 seeds. Store seeds in paper envelopes at room
temperature until they are planted. Seeds will keep up to 10 years at room
Plant seeds in 6-inch pots, using a combination of leaf mold and peat moss.
Cover seeds with 1/2 inch of same material. Any good potting soil that's
acidic is good for seed germination.
After planting, over-winter the pots outdoors in November or December. They
will come up in 2-3 months, depending on the weather. Germination increases
the second year, because there's always a percentage of hard seeds that
won't germinate the first year. Part of the seed won't germinate until the
second year, to increase the probability for good weather conditions and
optimize germination success.
Plant the seedlings in May, when the young plants are usually 3 to 6 inches
tall or even taller. Plants are likely to require watering the first year
while roots are being established. Plant from 6 inches to one-foot
spacing. If a natural look is desired, scatter and clump the plantings.
Plants will begin to bloom by their second year if growth has been
Direct seeding is possible in places that can be left undisturbed, as among
shrubs, or among low perennials where the seedlings can be sheltered. If
planting seeds in the ground, autumn is the best time for seeding;
germination begins in two or three months and often continues beyond that
time. A friable seed mixture of sand, loam, and either peat or screened
leaf mold is best, covering the seed with sphagnum moss to aid in preventing
damping-off of seedlings.
In autumn, old leaves should be removed from
the center of large clumps, the foliage cut back, and a mulch applied,
especially if the irises are being naturalized in a semi-dry area.
Traditional resource management included harvesting huge bunches of iris
leaves in the fall, and storing these leaves until needed. The fibers are
then harvested from the leaves. This naturally accomplished the pruning and
mulching that modern horticulturists practice to maintain iris beds.
The PCI borer (Amphipoea americana var. pacifica ) and iris borer are
serious pests of iris. The iris borer stays in the rhizome through the
winter, then metamorphose, coming out sometime in the spring as a nocturnal
moth. Controlling the moth when its flying, to prevent it from laying its
eggs on the iris, would control the borer. At this time, it is recommended
to dig the infected plant out entirely, put it a plastic bag, and put them
in the garbage can to avoid contamination of other plants.
Milkweed (Asclepias species) and dogbane (Apocynum cannibinum ) were
traditionally burned by native people in the fall to maintain vigorous plant
production, to stimulate plant growth, to optimize long and abundant fiber
production from leaves and stalks, and to stimulate seed production. It is
probable that iris was burned for the same reasons.
Cultivars, Improved and Selected Materials (and area of origin) IRPU is
readily available from native plant nurseries and seed companies within its
range. Please check the Vendor Database, expected to be on-line through the
PLANTS Web site in 2001 by clicking on Plant Materials. Seeds and plants of
selected iris cultivars are available from many nurseries. It is best to
plant species from your local area, adapted to the specific site conditions
where the plants are to be grown.
American Iris Society. SPCNI. 4333 Oak Hill Road. Oakland, CA 94605.
Archer, W.A. 1957. Abstract of pharmacological research. pp 108-131 IN:
"Medicinal Uses of Plants" by Indian Tribes of Nevada, by Percy Train, James
R. Henrichs and W. Andrew Archer. Contributions Toward a Flora of Nevada,
No. 45. Beltsville, MD: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Plant Industry
Station. [Facsimile Reprint: Quarterman Publications, Lawrence, MA, 1978.]
Balls, E.K. 1962. Early uses of California plants. University of California
Press. 103 pp.
Cohen, V.A. 1967. Guide to the Pacific Coast irises. A monograph with
drawings and photos. British Iris Society. This monograph has been
reprinted by the Society for Pacific Coast Native Iris (SPCNI). 4333
Oak Hill Road, Oakland, California.
Cooke, S.S. 1997. A field guide to the common wetland plants of Western
Washington and Northwestern Oregon. Seattle Audubon Society and Washington
Native Plant Society. 414 pp.
Fowler, C.S. 1992. In the shadow of Fox Peak. An ethnography of the
cattail-eater Northern Paiute people of Stillwater Marsh. Cultural Resource
Series Number 5. U.S. Department of the Interior. Fish and Wildlife Service,
Region 1. Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge. 264 pp.
Gunther, E. 1945 rev. 1973. Ethnobotany of western Washington. University
of Washington Publications in Anthropology, 10(1). University of Washington
Press, Seattle, Washington.
Hickman, J.C. 1993. The Jepson manual: Higher plants of
California. University of California Press. 1399 pp.
Hunn, E. & J. Selam and family 1990. Nch'i-Wana "The Big River."
Mid-Columbia Indians and Their Land. University of Washington Press,
Seattle and London. 378 pp.
Hutchens, A.R. 1991. Indian herbalogy of North America. Shambhala, Boston
& London. 382 pp.
Lawyer, A. & L. Lawyer. January/February 1996. Growing and hybridizing your
own iris. Growing Native. The Newsletter of the Growing Native Research
Institute. 15 pp.
Lenz, L.W.A. 1958. Revision of the Pacific Coast irises. A monograph with
drawings and site maps for both species and naturally occurring hybrids.
Originally published in RSABG's publication. Also in 1958, it has been
reprinted by the Society for Pacific Coast Native Iris (SPCNI). 4333 Oak
Hill Road. Oakland CA 94605.
Martin, A.C., H.S. Zim, & A.L. Nelson. 1951. American wildlife and plants:
A guide to wildlife food habits. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, New
York. 500 pp.
Mason, H.L. 1957. A flora of the marshes of California. University of
California. 878 pp.
Moore, M. 1979. Medicinal plants of the mountain west. Museum of New
Mexico Press. 200 pp.
Moser, C.L. 1993. Native American basketry of southern California.
Riverside Museum Press. 155 pp.
Murphy, E.V.A. 1959. Indian uses of native plants. Mendocino County
Historical Society. 81 pp.
Schmidt, M.G. 1980. Growing California native plants. University of
California Press. 366 pp.
Strike, S.S. 1994. Ethnobotany of the California Indians. Koeltz
Scientific Books, USA\Germany. 210 pp.
USDA, NRCS 1999. The PLANTS database. National Plant Data Center, Baton
Rouge, Louisiana. http://plants.usda.gov
Warburton, B. date unknown. The world of irises. American Iris Society.
718 West 67th Street. Tulsa, Oklahoma.
formerly USDA, NRCS, National Plant Data Center
M. Kat Anderson, Species Coordinator
USDA, NRCS, National Plant Data Center
c/o Environmental Horticulture Department, University of California,
For more information about this and other plants, please contact your local
NRCS field office or Conservation District, and visit the PLANTS http://plants.usda.gov and Plant
Materials Program Web sites
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