Saturday, April 20, 2013

Beauty and the Beast

On Porcupines and Iris

In April the irises flower in Chianti. They are mostly mauve (some are white or dark purple) and wave in fields or from the tops of walls along winding country roads.

According to Linnaeus in 1762, Iris Florentina was one of the most important irises to be grown commercially across Europe. It was used to make orris root, a powder to add fragrance to perfume or flavour to Chianti wine, now used principally as a fixative.  

typical field of irises or giaggioli as still found around San Polo or Lamole in Chianti

The iris is said to be the true source of the emblematic Florentine lily, or giglio, the symbol of the city of Florence dating from its impression on Europe's first internationally commercial gold coin, the florin or fiorino, in 1252. And the iris informs even the most ordinary aspects of popular life in the city: the colour of the Florentine soccer team is of course 'viola'.

Although normally red on white, this giglio evinces the real colour and shape of the local giaggiolo

Sadly, the giaggiolo industry that was so prevalent in Lamole until a few years ago is waning.  The elderly, who used to peel them with special knives and sell them to perfumeries, are dying, and the younger generation is no longer interested in doing all the hard work.  Until a few years ago, fields of soft blue abounded when the irises were flowering. Now they are fewer and further between. But the principal cause appears not to be the lack of interest in their cultivation and production, although that could have something to do with it; their sudden disappearance seems to be owing to the arrival in the area of the porcupine.

It is said that the Romans introduced the porcupine into Italy. It was not present in Chianti however until about a generation ago. No doubt it heard about the glorious fields of tuberous plants there.

Today the WWF claims it risks extinction. It seems to inhabit some areas and not others, for instance not Lamole where the giaggiolo is cultivated although there may be a 'sinister' reason for that. In one night porcupines can devour an 8 metre bed of irises! However the old people will tell you that there are plenty of porcupines about and that their favourite meal is a juicy iris tuber.

Hystrix cristata or crested porcupine

Planted on steep slopes or along the tops of walls, irises have a better chance of survival as porcupines are wary of heights. Early in our plantings I installed a row of giaggioli behind some lavender, along the top of a wall but still accessible on the flat. One morning soon after I found a hole at one end of the row where a plant had been. The next morning two holes. At this point I uprooted the survivors and planted them in tubs. Now we plant all irises in pots or fenced areas if not on slopes, presumably out of the comfort area of the beasts. We even have to be careful with our tulips, daffodils and other bulb or tuberous plants.

our very own white irises, flowering now

our very own dwarf iris, the first to flower in spring

Written in collaboration with Explicit

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