Orris Root from Sketches on the old road through France to Florence By Alexander Henry Hallam Murray

Orris Root from Sketches on the old road through France to Florence By Alexander Henry Hallam Murray
ORRIS-ROOT


One of the beauties of these Florentine hills is the orris, and it is not only beautiful, but the country gentlemen aforesaid find it very profitable in a good season. It is the root of this plant which forms the basis of all scents, and "the trade" cannot get on without it. Why, I know not; but "the trade" has elected to quote this featherweight article by the ton. A fair average price for a ton of orris-root is jC5°- ^n 1892 as much as ^120 a ton was paid; in 1898—a bad year—as little as £26. But it will be seen that the orris can be a very important flower to the dwellers in this part of the Garden of Italy. The only orris which is in any way serviceable in the manufacture of perfumery grows in the neighbourhood of Florence and the neighbourhood of Verona. It is odd that two districts, so dissimilar and so far apart, should produce the like rare treasure. I cannot account for it, but that the districts are dissimilar in appearance let the accompanying sketch of the country round Verona suffice to demonstrate without further comment.

The orris is the Iris Florentina, called by the Italians Giaggiolo. Of course there are plenty of other irises in the world: they are pretty to look at and pleasant to smell, but quite useless to "the trade." It is therefore necessary to distinguish between iris and orris; all orris is iris, but notall iris is orris. The flower of the Iris Florentina is white and sweet-smelling. It flourishes to greatest advantage in a stony soil, limestone by preference, and has a natural fancy for being planted upon the low, rough stone walls with which these hills are terraced. It takes two years and even three years —all depends upon the nature of the soil—for theroot tocome to the size andconditionrequired by "the trade." When the root or rhizome is dug up, four or five fresh-looking shoots are found growing out of it. These are detached and planted so as to form the new orris beds. The root itself is peeled and dried in the sun, when it becomes white, and is found to emit an odour of sweetest violets. The usual harvesting time is in the latter half of June.

Human ingenuity has fashioned a number of curious articles out of the root. I have made no secret of my fondness for prying into Tuscan industries: as there is not a scrap of literature on this subject except an official report, will the reader bear with me if I place on record some account of it in this volume?

I need say nothing of the fine, soft, white powder into which orris-root is ground, for that is done all the world over, but have you ever heard of orris-root beads? That, as you will see, is a sufficiently surprising industry. In Italian the beads are called palline, and in French boules (firis. These beads have nothing to do with bracelets or necklaces. The medical men of France and Italy a hundred years ago were of the opinion that the best means of curing certain diseases of the blood was to keep a constant open wound in the body of the sufferer, usually in the arm, but sometimes also in the leg. A small cut was lanced, say in the arm; a small ivory ball was forced into it so as to make a rounded hole, and into this hole one of these orris-root beads was daily inserted so as to keep the wound constantly open. Orris-root dilates in a liquid substance: that seems to have been the reason for its adoption in this singular branch of surgery. The wound was then covered with a raised wire-grated bandage, so as to prevent irritation from the patient's clothes. An heroic remedy truly, and many an arm is said to have been perpetually withered by this drastic treatment. The beads are made in about twenty-two different sizes, and not so many years ago something like twenty millions of them were exported every year from Leghorn. Even now the annual export is quite four millions. Modern science has, of course,entirely condemned the system, but the figure of export is evidence that it still prevails, and largely too. Allot 365 beads to each sufferer, and the Leghorn export shows that about eleven thousand people in the year are still submitted to the treatment. More than this, at Paris, the centre of civilisation, there is also a workshop for the manufacture of these beads with a large output, so that probably twenty thousand patients every year still undergo this old-fashioned heroic remedy. Almost the whole of the Leghorn export goes to Lyons, and it must therefore be by French peasants that the treatment is mainly adopted. The practice has died out in Italy, but it is still not uncommon to meet old people who have been subjected to it in their childhood and youth.

Another curious article made from the root is the dentaruolo, or orris-root "finger" (French, hochet pour dentition]. These fingers are flat and oval-shaped, and vary in length from two and a half to four inches. They are simply used in place of the old-fashioned coral. Not only do they serve the purpose of assisting teething, but the very slight quantity of juice absorbed in the process of sucking is said to be an excellent digestive. The idea is German, "fingers" having first been made at Ebingen in Wurtemberg about twenty years ago. I do not know who the originator was, or whether the idea has obtained the approval of any of the great German doctors, but the manufacture is considerable. Quite half a million are sent from Leghorn every year to Germany, France, and even to the enlightened United States of America. England alone holds back, but some day, perhaps, we shall see the coral disappear from our nurseries, and the orris-root finger take its time-honoured place.

Then orris-root reduced to fine grains also has its uses. These grains are prettily coloured blue, red, green or purple, simply to look nice, and sent away to Germany and Austria, where it is the custom to throw them in handfuls upon the fire so as to give an agreeable odour to salons and entrance halls. Now that the system of flats is coming so much into vogue in England, this form of orrisroot might be found very useful. Some people, in their London flats, burn cedar-wood to take away the smell of cooking. Surely the orris-root, which simply suggests sweet-smelling flowers, would be the preferable of the two?

Orris-root in the form of tiny chips (Italian, ritagli; French, dockets) also serves a practical purpose. The South German and Austrian, and, I think, the Russian gentry, make their servants and dependants chew it so as to remove the smell of tobacco or garlic. It is only another form of the United States practice of chewing odoriferous gums. One of the trials of foreign travel to the unseasoned Englishman is to be shaved by a barber who has been eating garlic. I recommend him to travel with a supply of orris-root ddchets, and he will always be in a position to offer a remedy.

Finally, all the filings and shavings of the orrisroot (Italian, raspature; French, rapures) which are produced in making these articles also have a use.

They are converted into a strong liquid essence. Three tons of shavings will make about two pounds of essence. The essence is responsible for the bouquet in much wine, the bitter in some beer, and the savour of several syrups. When wine is made from grapes which have grown alongside the orrisbeds, it has a flavour that many palates find delicious: the powerful scent of the rhizomes has entered the sap of the vines and perfumed it. But it is said that a few drops of the manufactured essence will produce a precisely similar effect.

I have thought that it might interest the reader to know how many and how curious are the uses to which the root of the white flower that he has admired so often on these hills is put. But if he desire to see these things in the making he must turn aside for a space from the old road through France to Florence, and visit the great harbour of the Tyrrhenian sea. There was once a workshop in Florence; the only one now left in Tuscany is that of Madame Felice Loraux, at Leghorn. Here, too, he will see the industry to the best advantage. The beads are made at Paris, the "fingers" in Wurtemberg, the root is ground to powder all the world over; but it is only in Madame Loraux' workshop in Leghorn where all the various forms of worked orris-root may be seen in full activity under the roof of one and the same establishment.*