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/What is Iris?/

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.

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.

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.


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. 

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The cultivation of the Giaggiolo or iris is well integrated with the other typical crops of the Chianti (grape vines and olive groves). The ends (the “prode”) of the terraced fields – also known as “piagge”, “galestri” and “albaresi” are dedicated to their cultivation.
The pieces of land that one thinks are unusable provide, rather, an extremely valuable product, especially if grown in lean, arid and stony soil. No fertilizers are used for cultivation, as this would have a negative effect. The flowers feed on only sun, wind, and rain.
In autumn, the “cuttings” set aside at the time of harvest are planted.

It is necessary to weed these fields twice annually, in April and September, to ensure that the seedlings are not choked by the weeds.
After three years (the time necessary for the rhizomes to grow large and compact), between July and August, the harvest finally takes place.
Harvesting begins early in the morning: at first light hoes release the roots of the iris which are then cleaned of their beards or “shaved”.
The rhizomes are then placed in large basins of water, further cleaned and then given over to the “hullers”, who already late in the morning begin a further processing phase which, with a fixed handle pruning hook, consists of removing the roots of the Iris from the skin and the “eyes” or beard residue. As they chat together, the expert, skilled and fast hands of women, men and boys complete this operation, following which, the iris roots are extended on mats to dry in the sun.