Legend has it that on St. Reparata’s Day in the year 405, the Goths had Florence under siege, and the city was failing badly. Suddenly, St. Reparata appeared in the midst of the fighting, holding a blood-red banner emblazoned with a white iris, and with that, the fortunes of the Florentines turned, leaving them victorious.
In gratitude, the city adopted the symbol for its coat of arms. After the Guelfs routed the Ghibellines in the late thirteenth century, the colors were reversed, and the red lily on a field of white became the symbol of Florence that we see today.
While the image of the iris may inspire Florentine pride, the actual flower has inspired a multitude of practical applications through the ages. The violet-scented rhizome (rootstalk) of the iris, which is called orris root, has long been harvested, dried, peeled and pounded to make powder used for washing clothes, hair, and teeth or used medicinally as an expectorant and decongestant. Left intact, it has been chewed as a breath freshener, carved into rosary beads, and given to babies as a teething aid. The ‘juice’ from an iris blossom was even said to lighten freckles.
During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, ‘iris green’ was a rare, coveted pigment color used by manuscript illuminators and painters. The flower had to be harvested in bloom while the sap was running. The ‘juice’ of iris florentina petals-which appears bluish or purple when steeped in boiling water-turns green and thickens when mixed with alum.
Perfumers have long distilled orris root powder with steam to create an essential oil for use as a fixative in fine perfumes. The Tuscan iris was once so important in perfume making that in the August harvest season, a direct train left Florence to Grasse, France, one of the world’s top perfume-making locations, filled with sacks of orris root from local farms. Because it takes two to four years of drying the rhizome to achieve peak perfume, the iris was an expensive material. It has now largely been replaced with a synthetic substitute.
Orris root’s sweet but spicy flavor has made it a popular addition to liqueurs and candies. The annual Festa del Giaggiolo at San Polo in Chianti, which takes place on the second weekend of May this year (May 7 and 8), features iris wine.
Considering the prominent place the iris has always played in Florence, it’s not surprising that in 1954, the city began hosting the International Iris Competition, an annual event that welcomes the world’s top iris growers. In 1959, the competition found a permanent home in the Iris Garden, situated on the east slope of piazzale Michelangelo. Some call this garden-open just a few weeks each year-one of Florence’s best-kept secrets.
Each year, from June to September, growers from around the world send their rhizomes to Florence to be planted and cultivated in the Iris Garden for three years. Each entry is cataloged, but it is planted with only the variety name and initials for identification so that the competition can remain anonymous. When the garden opens, the public and judges discover a breathtaking array of varieties in bloom, not to mention an incredible view of the city. Set in an ancient olive grove, the garden also features a small lake for water iris varieties.
The winner of the iris competition receives the Gold Florin, emblazoned with city’s insignia. The city council awards a special prize to the iris whose color most closely matches the red of the shield of Florence.
In 2011, the Iris Garden is open from April 25 to May 20, from 10am to 12:30pm and 3pm to 7pm daily. The Iris Competition runs from May 9 to 12, and the awards will be conferred at Palazzo Vecchio, in the Salone dei Duecento on May 14 at 10am.