When I moved to Cedar City last year, one of our neighbors gave us some iris rhizomes from her yard, and this spring we had some beautiful iris flowers in our yard. There are about 300 species of iris, and a few of those species have been used medicinally. The most widely used is Iris versicolor also known as blue flag.
Blue flag is strong medicine. It’s mildly toxic, so it should only be used in very small doses. Native Americans used it as an emetic, purgative (laxative), diuretic, and wound healer. It’s also a strong cholagogue, an herb that stimulates bile flow.
Liver and Gallbladder Stimulant
Blue flag is a potent remedy for clearing stagnation from the liver. It is used when the liver is swollen and painful, indicated by pain, swelling, and discomfort under the right rib cage. It is also indicated for clay-colored stools, a sign of a lack of bile production. It can be used with other cholagogues like fringe tree, barberry, turmeric, and dandelion to help clear gallstones and aid the digestion of fats.
Its action as an emetic and laxative are probably connected to its ability to flush out the liver and increase bile flow. As I understand it, when the liver flushes toxins into the duodenum they irritate that part of the small intestines. This causes the peristalsis of the colon to reverse, moving upwards instead of downwards. This creates the sensation of nausea. The body doesn’t want these irritating substances moving through the entire length of the GI tract and instead wants to expel them more rapidly by causing them to be vomited out of the stomach. Herbs that stimulate this are called emetics.
The Value of Emetics
We don’t use emetic therapy much in Western herbalism because it’s so unpleasant, but it is a useful therapy and one that I’ve used myself with lobelia. If you’ve eaten something that’s causing food poisoning or you have ingested a non-caustic poison, stimulating the vomiting reflex is the fastest way to get it out of the system. And, even though it’s not pleasant, most of us know from experience that once we’ve successfully thrown up the substances that are irritating the body, we feel better, even though we feel quite weak afterward.
The syrup of ipecac used to be sold at drug stores for use as an emetic, but it’s no longer available, and there have also been efforts to ban lobelia. Seems that the FDA doesn’t like emetics very much. They are, after all, somewhat toxic. But, the reason why it’s difficult for you to poison yourself with an emetic is because you’ll throw it up before you take enough to cause your body any serious harm. This appears to be the case with blue flag, too.
Bile is also a natural lubricant and laxative. So, increasing bile flow helps increase elimination in the other direction, too. Blue flag acts as a bitter to stimulate secretions from the pancreas, liver, and intestinal linings which improves digestion and aids elimination. It also acts as a strong blood purifier and has been used for chronic skin diseases like eczema and acne, especially when these are related to gallbladder problems or constipation. So, it may be helpful for eczema, psoriasis, and skin rashes.
Blue flag is also a strong lymphatic cleanser. Micheal Moore suggested combining it with red root and/or echinacea for swollen lymph nodes and congested lymphatics. I’ve personally found the combination of red root and echinacea fantastic for clearing lymphatic swelling and infections, including tonsilitis, so I imagine the addition of a small amount of blue flag would make an even more potent lymphatic cleanser.
Blue Flag Flower Essence
Both blue flag, and a related species Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana) have been used as flower essences. I first learned about the signatures of iris from Matthew Wood, in his book Seven Herbs, Plants as Teachers, which is the text that got me fascinated with the idea of signatures and the use of flower essences beyond Bach’s original remedies.
Blue flag tends to grow in damp or marshy areas of North America. So, it grows in a muddy, boggy environment. We associate this type of environment with feeling stuck, as in the phrase “bogged down.” It’s hard to move through marshy areas because it’s easy to get “sucked down” as you try to walk.
Nevertheless, the iris grows upwards, out of this environment, and unfolds a brightly-colored, three-petaled flower that looks straight up to the sky. Three is associated with the trinity and the upward-looking blossoms are associated with looking upwards towards God.
So, the person who needs iris flower essence is stifled and suffocating in the mud of life. They are bogged down so much that they lack color, often having a gray cast to their skin and a lack of vitality. Iris as a flower essence helps them lift their consciousness upwards seeking inspiration from God and creative solutions to their life circumstances. It helps them become iridescent, which is to say, it brings back their color and vibrancy so they can move forward and get out of the boggy condition in which they find themselves.
Using Blue Flag
You’re not likely to find blue flag in most commercial herb products as it’s really a professional botanical. I think blue flag is just as safe as lobelia, but you have to be aware of its toxic effects and use it with plenty of care and intelligence. Of course, if you are using it as a flower essence, which is the way I use it the most, it’s completely safe.
You can buy the dried roots or harvest them in the fall yourself. The tincture, which is the safest way to use the herb because you can use very small doses, is made from the dried roots. The dose needed is small, 1-10 drops once or twice daily. You can also use a small amount in a formula. Of course, if you want to induce vomiting, you’d take the smaller dose (5-10 drops) every few minutes with water until it produced the desired effect. It’s good to sip a little peppermint or chamomile tea after throwing up to settle the stomach.
Of course, if you have acute inflammation in the liver, gallbladder, or pancreas or some type of inflammatory bowel disease, I wouldn’t use it. You don’t want to cause irritation when these tissues are already irritated. I’d also avoid it if you are pregnant.
So, if your body is bogged down with toxins you can clear your system with blue flag and if your soul is bogged down by life you can help get yourself out of the mud with blue flag flower essence. In either case, the beautiful iris flowers are a reminder to look upward for inspiration and hope.