The area around Villa le Barone, in Panzano and Greve in Chianti has been for years the ideal place for growing irises: their roots, once dried and ground to a fine powder, are the basis for many renowned perfumes. Now, they ravish the eyes by their beauty.
Chianti, our blessed gorgeous region, is known for wine, for olive oil, for its landscapes, for its good food, for Villa le Barone in Panzano … but how many persons know Chianti and specially the region around Greve and Panzano for its irises? Not many, probably! Rushing passers-by may have noticed the beautiful iris flowers growing along stone walls or filling up the space between grape vines or olive groves, but they may have put that on account of some gardener poet running wild in the splendid Chianti hills!
Wrong! Irises were part of an industrial and commercial activity carried out since the mid-nineteenth century by the Chianti farmers as a complement to their more classical agricultural income.
The iris (“giaggiolo” en Italien) is often called mistakenly lily “Giglio” in Florence, the flower which symbolizes the capital city of Tuscany. The iris has been known and appreciated since ancient times for the properties of its rhizome when dried. In the medical field and especially in the cosmetics field the iris has been used for centuries to prepare compounds of various types: as a remedy for coughs, snake bites or depression, in the preparation of perfumes, face powders, soaps and colorants. The roots contain an essence ‘irone’, with a delicate and persistent perfume of violets when dried so as to also be known by the definition “violet roots”! In the Greve in Chianti and Panzano area, the iris has found its ideal environment and has come to be appreciated by important perfume companies. The Porcupine (Istrice in Italian) is the greatest predator of Irises and when a family of Porcupines gets in yout patch it’s a major disaster!
Nowadays the substitution of this essence by synthetic perfumes and the emergence of rival low-cost producers such as China and North Africa discouraged the cultivation of the iris in Tuscany. As a consequence there aren’t many people left growing the ‘giaggiolo’ or iris and in July and August you’ll find only rare families of men and women together chatting and working the iris roots in the shade.
Three years after first planting the young irises, the roots are pulled out of the ground with a special tool (called ‘ubbidiente’), then the earth is shaken off, the plant is separated from the rhizomes and then a long process of cleaning the rhizomes starts where the roots are cut from the rhizomes by hand.
The roots are then sliced and left to dry for a year, sometimes more. The sliced, dried roots are then collected for further industrial processing: The roots, once sliced and dried, are ground to a powder and used by the French perfume industry in particular.
From a botanical point of view the Iris belongs to the family of Iridaceae (the same as the Crocus sativus or Saffron) while the Giglio (Lily) which in Florence is often used a synonym for the Iris , belongs to the Liliaceae family. Of the many varieties of Iris existing in nature or the result of hybrids, the most typical of these hills and the one most widely grown and picked for the properties mentioned, is the Iris pallida, of a pastel colour, gently tending towards pinkish-purple. The rhizome of this variety of Iris is the richest in essence and has a delicate and persistent smell of violets, so much so as to also be known by the definition “violet roots”: the perfume cannot be detected in the fresh rhizome but only in those which have been “processed” (that is after removing the roots and cleaning) and dried.
In the month of May when the flowers are all out, it’s a spectacular sight, with the flowers scattered among the vineyards and olive groves… and we have also beautiful irises in our garden in Villa le Barone!
An Iris festival takes place in San Polo in Chianti every year the first week of May and a garden-dedicated to Iris- is locayed close to Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence: http://www.irisfirenze.it/giardino.htm