Perfumers, in their wisdom, refer to it as orris – but by whichever name, iris/orris is one of the priciest – and most important – perfume ingredients, worldwide.
Production of this beautiful powdery, soft, floral, elegant note requires great patience – hence the hefty price-tag. It’s the rhizomes, or gnarly roots, of iris which must be left for three to five years to mature. (Time is money, in perfumery.) They’re then steam-distilled to produce a gloopy, oily yellow compound, known in the business as ‘iris butter’. This powerful oil can then be played with by perfumers, who use it as an ultra-feminine heart note. (Recently, iris has become distinctly fashionable as a fragrance ingredient.)
The perennial lant itself, of course, is gorgeous: tall, with blowsy short-lived flowers that come in a rainbow of shades. In perfumery, the most useful iris plants are Iris Pallida (mauve in colour), Iris Germanica (strong purple) and Iris Florentina (white flowers). According to romantic legend, the name ‘Iris’ comes from the Greek ‘rainbow goddess’ Irida, who used a rainbow to slide from sky to earth, bringing the will of the Olympic Gods to share with mere mortals. Where she touched the ground, beautiful iris flowers grew out of her footprints. Today, iris plants happily grow everywhere from Europe to the Middle East, Asia and north Africa.
But as the stories behind fragrance ingredients go, they surely don’t come much more romantic than that…
Smell Iris in: