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What is Iris Versicolor?

By N. Phipps
Updated May 17, 2024
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Iris versicolor, also known as harlequin or blue flag, is a perennial plant with violet-blue flowers. This plant is native to marshes and swamps throughout central and eastern North America. Harlequin blue flag is also available through many nursery suppliers and cultivated in the home garden. In addition to its aesthetic purpose in the garden, this plant has a history of use among Native Americans.

The Native Americans used the leaves of Iris versicolor to weave baskets. They also believed its root to be powerful, serving as protection against rattlesnake bites. In fact, the root, or rhizome, of blue flag is actually poisonous. Nonetheless, the plant’s anti-inflammatory qualities and other medicinal properties made it quite popular.

Iris versicolor was one of the most commonly used medicinal plants among Native American tribes. It was used for various healing purposes which are still practiced today by herbalists and others within the field of homeopathic medicine. The Native Americans were thought to have used this plant most often as a cathartic to cleanse the body and emetic to induce vomiting. Today, blue flag is used much the same way, prescribed to help detoxify the body.

The plant increases urination and bile production and also acts as a mild laxative. The fresh rhizome can be water distilled and used in small doses for treating various liver conditions such as hepatitis. The dried leaves or root can be made into tea as well. It has been used as treatment for digestive ailments and conditions related to drug and alcohol abuse, or excessive exposure to chemicals and industrial pollutants. Iris versicolor is also a good stimulant for the circulatory and lymphatic system.

When the roots are boiled in water and mashed into a poultice, Iris versicolor can be used to relieve pain and swelling associated with various skin sores and bruises. In fact, blue flag makes an ideal treatment for a variety of skin diseases, such as eczema and psoriasis. The leaves have also been used for alleviating burns and sores. Other common remedies include the treatment of headaches or migraines, syphilis, and rheumatic conditions.

Although the plant’s toxicity is rather low, caution should be taken when using it. The roots of Iris versicolor are generally harvested in late summer or early autumn. The dried root is less acrid; therefore, it is most recommended. The fresh blue flag root is more toxic and may cause nausea, vomiting, purging, colic, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and elevated temperature. In addition, minor skin irritation may develop from contact with the plant’s seeds, rootstock, or sap.

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