Florentine Iris by Henry Groves

Florentine Orris, By Henry Groves

Florence has not always borne its present distinction for the produce of orris root. Anciently that of Illyria was- the most famous, and even Italians gave the preference to that of Dalmatia, which would almost lead one to suppose that some of the species at present cultivated may have been introduced in like manner as some of the numerous tulips which now adorn the cornfields around the City of Flowers, and which are supposed to have escaped from garden cultivation. The negative evidence of Micheli (a.d. 1720) would seem to support this view; he having simply mentioned the occur.rence of T. tyletstria, whereas we have now some ten or twelve forms of that genus, four of which are exceedingly common. In any case the introduction of Iris must have been at a very early period, as Andrea Cesalpino, in 1583, mentions two of our present species — Iris Florentina (Linn.) and /. Germanica (Linn.) as occurring in the neighbourhood of Florence; the former he describes as "Iris cujus flos ex toto candidus," and tho latter as " Irk" simply. Later we find much confusion of nomenclature, and the synonym of "Iris norcntina" nas been given to both I. germanica and I. pallida, the former in Savi's 'Botanieon Etruscum,' and the latter in Sonti's ' Viaggi,' both of which are of the present century. Santi, however, describee his plant as a variety of florentina. It was thus that it became usual to quote tho Florentine iris as tho source of all orris root, whereas it is now known that three species are capable of yielding the sweet-scented rhizome, and are called in common "Giaggiolo" or Ireos, the latter being considered the more refined term, and adopted by perfumers, whereas the former is always used by the country people. The •employment of these words gave great offence to -Antonius Musa Brusanolus as far back as 1515, for in his 'Examin. omn. simpl. Medicament,' published at Venice, he contended that they should be simply " Iris," and asserts that at Ferrara many druggists collected the rhizomes of a species of Gladiolus (r) instead of the true • drug, and from this he argues that the word " Giaggiolo'' was derived, it having a sound somewhat similar to Gladiolo. This author advised the use of Illyrian orris; which, although perhaps not a distinct species, owed its superiority to a suitable soil and climate,'which caused
it to flourish abundantly in that region. Illyria was visited by him in company with the Duke Alphonso, and especial attention was paid to the various irides. They wero collected with flowers of various colours, some being white or variegated, others pale or yollow, purple ! or blue; in fact, so great was the variety, that it was customary to sepa)atc them, not by thoir flowers, but by their rhizomes, of «hi -h two kitd* were noted in Illyria, ono called Bhaphanitis (from its similitude to Bhaphanites), being considered the best, while the less esteemed bore the name of Hizotomos, and had a sub-rufous colour.

Although the three species of Iris already mentioned, are found in the orris growing districts of Tuscany, the Iris florentina (Linn.} is by far the most rare, and is very seldom found beyond the precincts of tho country villas, where, in common with the two other species, it is used to ornament the wall and gardens. From this it will be seen that tho Florentine orris root is almost entirely the produce of Iris germanica (Linn.) and Iris pallida (Lam.), these two species being at present about equally cultivated. In the neighbourhood of Genoa, the Iris florentina is much more frequent than at Florence, and His planted, together with one of the other species, around the roots of the fig-trees, which arc said to flourish better when thus surrounded, possibly on account of the moisture retained in the soil by the shelter of leaves. The cultivation of Iris as a commercial product has very much increased during the last sixty or seventy years, since the establishment of a manufacture of orris peas at Pontasieve in 1806, under the auspices of tho Marquis •Strozzi. This establishment is situate in the centre of tho orris district, which is very extensive, and embraces many communes on the right and left banks of the Arno, perhaps the greatest yield being from the neighbourhood of Kignano and Pontasieve, although Grassina, Greve and Panzano on the left bank, and Compiobbi on the right contribute largely to the general sum. The rhizomes are frequently collected from the peasants by mozzani or middlemen, and sent to some centre, such as Pontasieve or Leghorn, from which latter port it is sent in large quantities to England and other countries. Tho rhizomes arc picked over and sold either as "scelti" or selected, or as "in sorte," or sorts, and vary very much in price in different seasons. This year the prices are advanced. Besides tho whole rhizomes, the Pontasieve manufactory sells pieces or "frantumi," and raspings or "raspature" for the use of perfumery, the prices of which are of course ruled by the price of the whole rhizome. There is also a considerable trade in powdered orris, which, under the name of " iris," is much sought for by strangers. The pharmacy of S. Maria Novella, at Florence, sells enormous quantities of the powder either plain or scented, so that tho combination of perfumery with drug vending is by no means as English as wo suppose, for in Italy it is of very ancient date; the same may be Baid of the manufacture of liqueurs, of which industry the Grande Chartreuse of Grenoble offers a striking example, which has served as a model to many a similar establishment throughout Europe. All the species of Iris are very hardy, and are cultivated chiefly on tho wall sides of the terraced stony hills so frequent in Tuscany, or on the otherwise waste ground separating plots of ground in hilly districts, sometimes also it establishes itself on the "waste ground contiguous to cultivated land or even in thin woods. The irides are by no means confined to Tuscany, but as a. branch of industry their cultivation is not well known beyond it. On an excursion to tho lake Thrasimcno, 1 noted a large extent of an iris, which, although out of flower, appeared to me to be I. germanica, on the east end of the Isola Maggiore; and on remonstrating with tho people for not turning it to account, they informed me the rhizomes were once collected, but could not bo sold for want of the proper trimming. The plants flower in April; the I. florentina (which is some days later than tho other two species the tall Iris pallida with its pallid blue, and tho more lowly /. germanica with its deep azure flowers, conspicuously gladden the springtide. It is in August that the rhizomes are harvested. They are so superficially set in the soil as to require little labour in uprooting, and, as they are dug up, a sufficient quantity of offshoots are selected each with a small portion of rhizome attached—a mere fragment suffices. These are set aside in the cellar or other convenient damp place, to kept until the cooler and more rainy month of October sets in, when they are planted in tho cleared places, and speedily take root. It requires, at tho least, two years for the plants to form another crop of rhizomes sufficient for removal. As soon as the rhizomes are taken up, they are deprived of their outer integuments either by peeling or scraping, and the denuded wood is carefully laid out in the sun, great attention being used to avoid bruising, which discolours the product when dried. The odour of the drug developes itself as soon as the rhizomes are thoroughly dry, and it is said that it continues to improve up to a couple of years, but this does not prevent the country people from selling the crop at once. Although the ins crop is comparatively a side product, it is of sufficient importance to be shared by the landowner according to the Tuscan system, which provides that tho owner of tho soil shall find the plant, and the contadino, or labourer, his toil,—the profit to be divided equally between them. A group of these small farms or poderi is overlooked by a fattore, or bailiff, on behalf of tho owner, all purchase of implements or cattle being managed by him; happy is the man on whom he smiles, so great is his influence on the farm.

The severe frosts of last winter, whereby perished many thousands of olive-trees, besides other fruit and ornamental plants, have given us a clue to the present distribution of the orris plants, for on a visit with Mr. D. Hanbury, to one of the few spots where the three enumerated species flourish without cultivation, we found Iris florentina so nipped by the frost that tho upper buds were entirely rotten, and the plants themselves so backward and puny as to present a lamentable contrast with tho Iris pallida, whose tall, flaunting inflorescence, unlike the other two species, was quite double the height of the leaves. I have remarked that this species is to lie seen planted higher up on tho mountain side than the I. germanica, and this would seem to give it the preference for hardiness. The white papyraceous bracts of the I. pallida are very conspicuous, and offer a distinctive character in comparison with tho I. germanica, which has the bracts less developed and of a green colour. The bracts of the Florentine orris would seem to have a texture between those of the other two, but are not larger than those oil. germanica. It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to distinguish the fresh rhizomes of the different species, although, as Mr. Hanbury pointed out to me, the lobes of Florentine orris root, seem more cylindrical than tho other species; moreover, it appeared to me, that the rhizomes were less forked than with the other species. In conclusion, I may state my belief that in some future time Iris pallida will become more extensively cultivated, as being the most hardy of the three species, and the one best suited to resist the cooler air of tho mountains, or the scorching heat of the lower elevations.

Mr. Hanbuby: I may bo allowed just to say that I had tho pleasure last spring of visiting, partly in company with Mr. Groves and partly by myself, many spots in the neighbourhood of Florence where these plants were growing. I also observed the distribution of tho plant, and noticed how it was restricted to the neighbourhood of Florence. On going southward, or on going towards Ancona, one was very Boon out of the district of iris cultivation. In fact, it appears quite confined to a comparatively small area of which Florence may bo taken as the centre. What Mr. Groves says about tho species is borno out by my own observations. He says that
these three species are distinct, and that Iris florentina, which we have been accustomed to regard as the chief source of commercial orris root, is that which affords lease of it. In fact, orris root may be said to bo derived more from Iris pallida and Iris germanica than from Iris florentina.

Mr. Haseldex: I cannot add anything to the history of the Iris florentina or Iris germanica; but I may make a few practical observations upon the rhizome of the iris which is supplied to us in the course of business. The employment of the orris root, as wo commonly call it, is chiefly in tho form of powder for tooth powders. Also it is largely employed by chemists and perfumers for making tincture and used as an adjunct, or, as it were, a vehicle for, other perfumes. There is this peculiarity about orris root—that, like some other perfumes that I may mention, musk, ambergris, and vanilla, it is almost impossible to exhaust it of its odour. Orris root contains, as far as my experience goes—(I have not gone into the matter very minutely)—a resinous gum, a mucilaginous gum, a large amount of starch, and, authors say, an essential oil. I have tried, but without success, to obtain that essential oil. An oil has been introduced from Germany as the essential oil of orris root, and at a very large price, but I am inclined to think that it is not tho pure essential oil. In order to obtain tho essential oil of orris root, distillation with water is the process. The difficulty with it is that it contains so much mucilage and so much starch that it is necessary to keep it constantly stirred before it arrives at the boiling-point, at which point the oil would come over. Unless it is kept constantly stirred, before it comes to the boiling-point it is almost sure to stick to the bottom of the still and become spoilt, or else it boils over. By making a tincture of orris root a strong perfume is obtainable by the employment of rectified spirits; but when distilled in order to get a colourless tincture, a largo amount of the perfume remains behind along with the resin. The odour of the distillate is very faint. Water extracts a large amount of the perfume; but it is useless except as a substitute for common water in distilling for the oil. Orris root is used very much by fashionable people, as a preservative or, rather, as a corrective masticatory ; and the custom, with those who are particular about it, is to have tho orris root soaked in water and cut into very fine pieces and then dried; they carry it in the pocket, and use it as they require it. But I find that it is possible to get the odour of the orris root if distilled with some essential oil. I obtain a combination of the oil with which it is distilled with a strong odour of the orris root at the same time. It appears that some essential oils have the power of not only dissolving, but of positively extracting, and carrying over in the process of distillation, the odour of the orris root. There is, of course, a waste of the original oil in the operation, but still for any one who is curious in the perfume of orris, it is really one of tho best ways of obtaining it. Macerate ,the orris root well in water, first of all; then slice it, and in that way the starch which abounds is less troublesome. There is no oil I know of which answers the purpose better than that commonly known as oil of geranium, the article used to adulterate otto of roses. In that way, with care, you may get over the original oil of geranium very strongly impregnated with the flavour of the orris, root. That is the only way in which I have been able to obtain anything like oil of orris root. There is this peculiarity about orris. Like musk, it never seems to lose its odour entirely.

Mr. Umney: I rise not to make any remarks upon Mr. Groves's paper, but merely to set at rest the doubt which Mr. Haselden seems to have of the existence of essential oil of orris root. Having distilled during the past eight years several tons of the root, I can assure him such a body is to be met with in commerce, very much resembling in appearance cacao butter. The proportion of essential oil obtained is about one part
from one thousand of the root. Professor Attfleld will water; it is quite white when first distilled, but soon remember that some years ago he saw several ounces of it. assumes a pale straw colour. Its smell is characteristic.