The Florentine Iris: beautiful, fragrant, and worth its weight in gold
May 06, 2015/in /by admin
On my bike ride the other day I passed a vast field of purple iris amidst the olive groves and vineyards. I stopped to take a picture and inhale the powerful scent when a car pulled up and a friendly couple smiled at me and said "Ti piace?" (do you like it?). I said yes, and explained that my mother used to have purple iris in the garden when I was a child, so the smell always transports me back to spring mornings, circa 1972. They explained that the flowers were not grown for their beauty but for the essential oils found in their roots (technically, rhizomes). It's a long and complicated process, and a dying art here in Tuscany, with just a few producers still in the hills of Chianti, or here in the Valdarno (the Arno River valley between Florence and Arezzo). In fact, the main association of "giaggiolo" producers (as the flowers are called in the local Tuscan dialect) is only a few kilometers down the road from the field of flowers I was admiring, in Castelfranco di Sopra.
The iris has been used since ancient times for medicinal purposes, as a powerful cathartic or for everything from curing snake bite to removing freckles to treating depression. But its true gift lies in its scent, and it has been used as a perfume all over the Mediterranean world, from ancient Egypt to classical Greece and Rome (the flower itself was named after the Greek goddess Iris, who supposedly came to earth in the form of the rainbow and is messenger of the gods on earth).
With the growth of the French perfume industry in the 19th century, a handful of enterprising Tuscan farmers began to plant iris (known in the industry as Orris) to boost their earnings. It's a long and painstaking process as the plants become productive only after 3 years, and then the roots have to be thoroughly peeled and processed by hand, and then washed and finally dried for 3 more years.
The result is one of the most prized scents in the world, with Florentine white Orris butter (the gold standard!) fetching prices around $150,000 per kilo (2.2 lbs.). The iris scent is one of the most popular in perfumes today, from Guerlain's classic "Après L’Ondee" ("after the rainshower") to Chanel's "28 La Pausa."
It's also found in gin, which explains its success in treating depression.
The iris can be seen in bloom in May and June, so come on by if you're in the neighborhood!