A TRADITION THAT MAKES US PROUD…
The Iris or Gladiolus (or even – and mistakenly - Giglio) as it is often called in Florence and the surrounding area, as well as being the flower which symbolizes the capital city of Tuscany and the hills surrounding it, has been known and appreciated since ancient times for the properties of its bulb (rhizome) when dried. In the medical field and especially in the cosmetics field the Gladiolus 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.
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 or Gladiolus, belongs to the Liliaceae family. (Photo 1).
1- Iris flowers.
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 color, gently tending towards pinkish-purple. (Photo 2).
2- Iris pallida.
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. (Photo 3)
Production for commercial purposes began in the mid-nineteenth century and soon reached considerable quantities, thanks to the constant, high demand from French and northern European firms, until it fell drastically due to competition from synthetic products which performed the same function (or almost) but at a much lower cost. The Gladiolus thus retained only its decorative function and the botanical interest of many enthusiastic farmers: recently however there has been renewed interest in the Gladiolus for the purposes it used to be famous for and which made it an important part of the Chianti economy. Known of since ancient times and present in the area of Florence and Chianti since time immemorial, also called “the poor man’s orchid", dear to poets and story tellers it owes its name (Iris) to a Greek goddess: llride, the daughter of Taumante and Electra, to whom the Greeks attributed the phenomenon of the rainbow.
In Florence, in a stylized form and with the incorrect name of "giglio" (lily) it became the city’s symbol in medieval times: the white flower on a red background was, initially, the emblem of all of Florence, both Guelf and Ghibelline; from 1251 onwards, the Ghibellines (exiled from the city by the victorious enemy) continued to fight under the standard while the Guelfs, to distinguish themselves, inverted the colors and moved over to a red lily on a silver background, still in use today. (Photo 4)
4- "Con queste genti vid’io glorioso - e giusto il popol suo, tanto che il giglio - non era ad asta mai posto a ritroso né per division fatto vermiglio…" Cit. Dante Alighieri - La Divina Commedia - XVI canto del Paradiso.
Many centuries later, halfway through the nineteenth century, the first functional farming and processing of the gladiolus began: a far-sighted farmer in San Polo, an outlying village of Greve in Chianti, launched into an adventure that was to continue up to today.
Adriano Piazzesi and his son Attilio imagined the importance which the medicinal properties of the Gladiolus rhizome might have and especially its potential use in the preparation of perfumes.
This was how a real industry got started, soon involving the sharecroppers of the San Polo valley, then Greve in Chianti followed by Pontassieve, Fiesole, Incisa in Val d’Arno and Bagno a Ripoli. The new figure of the “sodaiolo” appeared (in Chianti the earth which has not yet been broken up is called “sodi” (hard ground), small land-owners or tenants of a plot of land who worked with the family in the brief periods of the year when the cultivation of the Gladiolus required it. Gladiolus farming had a significant effect on society since it contributed to ensure the subsistence not only of the sharecroppers but also of the families of the so-called “pigionali”, hired workers and artisans inhabiting the area. At the beginning of the twentieth century the annual dry product reached up to 15,000 quintals (from a farmed area of approximately 600 hectares) and most of this was exported to France (the city of Grasse alone imported hundreds of quintals of rhizomes used mainly as fixing agents for perfumes) but Germany, United States, Switzerland and England also imported it.
The traditional processing
Gladiolus farming goes well with other types of farming typical of the Chianti hills (vines and olives) in as much as the edges of the terraced fields or plots of woodland, the so-called “piagge” (declivities), "galestri” (marls) and "alberesi” are used for the cultivation of this crop (Photo 5).
in other words a whole series of strips of land otherwise unusable and, as with the vine, the Gladiolus too yields a better product if grown in poor, dry, stony soil. (Photo 6)
In the autumn the “cuttings” set aside at the moment of harvesting are planted (Photo 7).
two brief moments of harrowing follow in April and September to free the plants from weeds (Photo 8).
after three years (the time needed for the rhizome to have grown large and compact), harvesting takes place between July and August.No manure or fertilizers are used because they would have the opposite effect: Just sun, wind, rain and “marl”. (Photo 9).
The harvesting begins in the early morning: at the first light of day the hoe frees the roots of the Gladioli which are later “sbarbucciate”, in other words freed of their roots. (Photo 10).
The rhizomes are then thrown into large earthenware bowls full of water to soften, cleaned further and then handed over to the “mondatrici”(peelers). Already by the end of the morning they are ready for a further stage of processing which consists of freeing the roots of the Gladiolus from the skin and from the “eyes” (left by the roots) with a billhook. The expert, skilled and fast hands of the men, women and children work fast as they chatter and the straw baskets laid in the sun fill up with Gladioli roots for the last phase, drying. (Photo 11 e 12).
3- Gionni Pruneti putting the dried rhyzomes into bags.
5- The colour of the irises in the field.
6- A piece of land used for iris cultivation.
7- Manually planting the irises.
8- Manual work.
9- The rhyzome before peeling.
10- Cleaning the roots.
11- Irises drying in the sun.
12-Irises drying in the sun.