Why is the iris amongst my favorite flowers? They recall memories of my grandmother’s garden just down the pine grove from my childhood home in Arkansas. Grandmother had purple, pink, white and yellow irises. It’s known that they are very hardy, and grow in most parts of the world, and some even bloom in the fall. So on a recent trip to see my brother, who now owns that piece of property on Highway 23 South in Eureka Springs, he mentioned that he was planning on taking them out. I asked why he would do such a thing since we had spent so many cherished moments with our grandparents in their garden during our childhood. They were also so proud of the garden they had cultivated all those years, and what were plots of irises now look like a field of them. “I don’t know” he responded...”they’re just all over the place.” So I told him about the beautiful purple Iris Pallida that are grown in the South of France and Tuscany, where they are a valued crop for perfumers worldwide, and one of the few “noble” ingredients still used in perfumery.
The Pallida Iris’ sensuous petals are as sensuous as the aroma they yield, and while you might think that it’s the flowers that are used in perfumery, it is not. The process that goes in to cultivating the iris for use in perfumery is astounding and once you learn about the time and care needed, you will understand why iris extract (in perfumery, iris is called “orris”) is one of the most —if not the most expensive ingredients used in perfumery. Here is a brief description why iris extract is so expensive:
May is the month when the iris blooms, but these beautiful flowers are actually discarded (and I’m sure sold in local flower markets). This process continues for three years, and in the third year during the month of July when the soil is dry from the hot summer sun, the rhizomes are either hand extracted or extracted using a special machine developed specifically for the iris farmers. The rhizomes are then carefully cleaned before they go into storage for another several years until they are ready for the tedious extraction process that starts with grinding the rhizome into a fine powder and then sent to for the distillation (heat and water). Through an elaborate process, farmers and fragrance suppliers such as International Flavors & Fragrances are able to yield several different forms of extracts such as iris oil, iris butter and iris absolute. According to fragrance industry sources such as IFF, it takes 40,000 iris plants or 8 tons of fresh rhizomes to obtain 1 kilo of iris absolute. As for the time it takes to obtain this 1 kilo? Approximately 6 years. And the cost to perfumers? According to various sources, the prices ranges depending on the quality, and I’ve heard as high as 50,000 euros for one kilo of its essential oil, higher than the price of gold, which is currently about 36,900 euros a kilo! I’m ready to go back to my brother’s land and see if there would be any way possible to start my own iris farm, using the iris that is growing there on that small plot of land. I’m not sure they are the famed Pallida Iris, but it’s worth an experiment!