The fascinating and timeless Iris

The fascinating and timeless Iris

The fascinating and timeless iris

This plant with its elegant and distinguished flower harbours a hidden treasure.
A subtle and tenacious fragrance, similar to violet, enhanced by powdery and woody accents, is extracted from the rhizome, its plump underground stem. The aristocratic flower contains a precious raw material, the most luxurious in perfumery.
The fragrant iris originated from Central Europe and then travelled further a field. Its cultivation was developed in Italy and Morocco. Transforming the rhizomes produces a fragrance which was greatly appreciated by Catherine of Medici who was responsible for its popularity.
However the iris had already been used in ancient times, in Egypt, Greece and Rome for its medicinal properties. It was rapidly introduced into fragrant compositions and has been used in perfumed powders since the 17th century.
Used to perfume linen and gloves, the iris was also wellknown for its aromatic qualities. It was grown in Ain, France during the 19th century and was used to give ordinary wines the same bouquet as the great Burgundy wines.
Today it can accompany red berry notes in drinks, yoghurts or sweets. The Iris Pallida, from Italy, whose cultivation especially developed in Tuscany in the 19th century, is the reference for all perfumers and the pride of the region. However its production slowly declined until the end of the 1990’s. In order to remedy this shortage, Biolandes began cultivating the Iris pallida in the Landes, France.
In less than 15 years, the situation of the iris has totally changed. Faced with a shortage of supplies the industry has had to find alternative solutions and Biolandes’ answer to the problem is unique.
From the Tuscany hills, through the Moroccan mountains to the Landes forests, let’s follow the iris that perfumers and flavorists find so fascinating.

Tuscany : Iris Pallida’s chosen land

Iris cultivation has developed on the limestone slopes of Tuscany in the Arezzo province not far from Florence. In May and June, the fields of flowering irises mark the valleys with patches of magnificent pale blue.

Symbolic flower of Florence

The Iris, emblem of Tuscany, was chosen to appear on the original coat of arms of Florence. It was actually Iris florentina, cultivated in the region in the past, which has been replaced by the cultivation of Iris pallida.

A complementary cultivation

Tuscany is well known for its olive oil and Chianti wine productions. Yet the farmers have long used the area under the olive trees or along the vines to plant irises.

Hidden Treasure

It is not the beautiful iris flower which harbours an olfactive treasure, but the underground part of the plant.
This treasure is dug up at the beginning of summer, when the flowers have already dried out.
The twisted, misshapen rhizomes enclose an incomparable perfuming richness, precursors of irones, the powerful natural molecules which make up the iris note.

A cultivation of patience

Three years separate the planting and harvesting of the first rhizomes. It is a labour of patience which is the guarantee of quality. The soil has to be weeded regularly so that the plant can exploit all its richness. After the harvest, most of the rhizomes are processed and a small number are used as seedings for future plantations.

Demanding work

Whether it is planting, weeding, or digging up the rhizomes, hands are indispensable for harvesting this buried treasure.
Mechanization is virtually impossible on these small plots which are often narrow and steep.
The roots are cut off each plant once it is out of the ground, and the rhizomes are peeled one by one using a small traditional knife called a « roncolino ».

And years of waiting

Firstly dried in the sun, then packed into hessian sacks, rhizomes are stored for 2 to 3 years to enable the perfume to develop.
It is during this desiccation period that the magical transformation occurs. Naturally, one by one, the precursors of irones oxidize and free all their olfactive richness.
These molecules with their incomparable suave and intense fragrance are the only natural source of irones available to the perfumer or flavorist.

Iris Pallida Italy : "Gold Standard"

The quantity of irones determines the value of the extract. The reference, today, is still the Iris pallida from Italy with 0.4 g of pure irones per kg of dry rhizomes.
The quantity of irones and percentage of different isomers characterize the origin of irises, and differentiate those from Italy, Morocco or China.
The Iris Pallida produces the most elegant and subtle of all the orris essential oils.

Threatened know-how?

This production requires agriculture dependent upon family workforces but the passing on of know-how from generation to generation is no longer guaranteed.
In Tuscany, the tradition for growing irises has less resonance among the young who are turning to other, more predictable activities such as wine and olive oil.
Iris production has gently declined since the end of the 1980s and now equals only 30 tons.

Another source of supply for a different variety of Iris

It is to the East of Marrakech, in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, that after travelling several kilometres along a track, we reach the area where Iris germanica, a variety with deep violet petals, is grown.
This flower provides a solution to the decrease in the Iris pallida production in Italy.
Olfactively, its essential oil is noticeable for its slightly spicy mineral tones.

Even more inaccessible

By taking the steep pathways which line the Ourika valley, we discover a landscape of terraces reserved for the cultivation of fruit trees. Irises are grown on the borders or on tiny patches which produce barely a few dozen kilos of rhizomes.

A reactive market in the atmosphere of a Souk

The Iris germanica is organized according to the needs of the market.
If there is demand, the iris is picked, cleaned and dried in order to be sold immediately.
The rhizomes are sold in the Souk to travelling traders who concentrate their purchases in Marrakech.
Small units of iris extraction and distillation also exist in Morocco.

In the heart of the pine forest

In the Gascony Landes forests, in the south-west of France, Biolandes has reinvented the iris cultivation, in partnership with the Maïsadour agricultural cooperative.
They have developed this cultivation on land which was traditionally used for maize.
A dozen years of research were necessary before producing, in 2005, the first extract of Iris pallida 100% Landes comparable in quality to the iris from Italy.

Landes Sand for the Iris Pallida

The soil might not be limestone but the sandy earth is ideal for cultivating plants with rhizomes such as the iris. Wide and accessible expanses of land enable the mechanization of the cultivation.

Fields, machines and men

For six months from mid-September to the beginning of February, the picking and cleaning of rhizomes carries on continuously.
Machines are used along with manpower for planting, weeding and collecting the rhizomes and help to improve the yield.

Preparation of the rhizomes

This step, carried out by hand, is necessary for the quality of the end products. Today it is greatly assisted by mechanical cleaning processes present throughout the procedure. The rhizomes are ready to be sent to Biolandes’ factory to be transformed.

An innovative maturation procedure

Thanks to a natural « drying » process specific to Biolandes, fresh rhizomes are treated so that the precursors are transformed into irones.
This requires only a few hours compared to the normal 2 to 3 years drying process. The iris is then ready to be placed into the stills.

The iris : a precious material

The long distillation process (24 to 36 hours) and low yield make the iris one of the most expensive natural raw materials. The distillation of the rhizomes produces an essential oil which solidifies and is called butter, and in a concentrated form, absolute.
Absolute, the noble substance in the range of orris products is the richest in irones and possesses a floral, suave inimitable fragrance with green powdery and woody accents.
The extraction process of the rhizomes using alcohol gives a resinoid which reminds us of chocolate.

The Landes Iris : Total Integration of the Supply Chain

Biolandes develops all types of irises at its factory in Le Sen but its specialty is the production of butter and absolute from the Landes iris using the Iris pallida from Italy as its model of quality.
By developing a new way of treating rhizomes, Biolandes has acquired an expertise in the production of orris extracts which guarantees consistent quality at controlled prices.

The Iris in Perfumery and Flavours

There are 2 main varieties of iris used in perfumery : Iris pallida and Iris germanica.

It is difficult to give a precise estimate of the global production due to the diversity of the regions farmed and the fact that many of the farms are really tiny.
The global production of all the varieties of iris is estimated to be about 300 T. Approximate quantities are : Italy : 25 - 30 T France : 40 T
Morocco : 80 - 100 T China : 100 T The Balkans : 50 T (mainly Macedonia)

The world market in orris absolute is only 40 to 50 kg and is shared between perfumers and flavorists! 100 kg of rhizome powder gives roughly 200 g of butter (essential oil) which in turn gives 40 g of absolute.

The iris is processed in 2 factories :
In Khemisset, Morocco, for the extraction and distillation of Iris germanica.
In Le Sen, France, for the treatment of all the other varieties of iris.