When Queen Victoria ruled and all the world looked to England for
elegance and fashion, violets were an integral part of Victorian
life. They were pressed between the leaves of heavy books, their
images hand-painted on delicate china brooches, and their blooms
sugared to garnish tea cakes. Florists prepared cut violets in
nosegays and tussie-mussies, and when fashionable ladies traded
garden plants in the spring and fall, prized violet varieties were
often included. To the Victorians, violets symbolized tender
friendship and loyalty. Their sweet fragrance, long valued by
perfumers, scented many a Victorian parlor.
To meet this craze for violets, American plant growers of the
late 1800s, like their French and English counterparts, responded
quickly. Rhinebeck, New York, became the center of violet
cultivation in the United States, and nearly every block sported a
backyard greenhouse dedicated to supplying cut violets to East
Although North America boasts dozens of native violet species,
the American growers imported the cultivars of Viola odorata and
other European species that were so popular abroad. English and
French collectors and growers had developed exciting flower colors
ranging from white through lavender, purples, blues, pinks, and
reds. Double and semi-double blooms were much admired, and cultivars
also varied greatly in stem length, disease resistance, and
durability of blossoms. In the 1920s, the American violet trade
peaked and began a slow decline that ended in 1984, when the last
of Rhinebeck’s greenhouses to cultivate violets abandoned the
practice, turning to more profitable plants.
Where are those Victorian violet cultivars now? Some Victorian
violets–and other herbs, too–are no longer cultivated in the
United Kingdom or the United States, and apparently are unknown
elsewhere. With the decline of the violet market, numerous V.
odorata cultivars, particularly the doubles and semi-doubles, took
the short slide from abundance to obscurity and joined
white-variegated rosemary, the double-flowered dame’s-rocket, and
other plants on the lost list. Frustrated gardeners were confined
to reading about such plants in old seed catalogs and tomes of
Yet some lost herbs may not be extinct but rather living
unnoticed along a roadside, in a neglected corner of an old
greenhouse, or in someone’s garden–maybe yours. These plants simply
await discovery. Others may be stored in the genetic code of a
seed, waiting until chance allows a new plant to emerge.
Finding a Violet
It takes a particular kind of sleuth to find and identify lost
plants–one with a keen eye, a good hand at propagation, and some
necessary diplomacy. Patience is essential. A bolt of good luck at
the right time helps, too. One such sleuth is John Whittlesey of
Canyon Creek Nursery in Oroville, California, a violet specialist
with a passion for semi-double V. odorata. He sought five Victorian
semi-doubles that had disappeared by the early 1970s and were
believed to be extinct.
At the top of Whittlesey’s list were “Mrs. David Lloyd George,”
with medium violet-blue outer petals and a central rosette of white
and lavender, and “Countess of Shaftesbury,” with large blue-purple
petals surrounding a rosette brushed with blue and rose. Both were
highly scented. So desirable were these lost varieties that one
noted English violet enthusiast named as his two life goals finding
the old family Bible and finding “Countess of Shaftesbury.”
Whittlesey had a slight edge over others in his search. While
working in the early 1980s at a now-defunct Oregon nursery, he had
noted a customer who had been ordering violets for more than thirty
years. A few years later, he had a chance to visit her in
California Gold Country. She was an elderly woman in whose
delightful country garden he found a plant that fit the description
of “Mrs. David Lloyd George.” The gardener was happy to send a bit
of it home with Whittlesey.
For five months, Whittlesey eagerly awaited the bloom that would
prove the plant’s identity. But spring revealed not the “Mrs.”; the
plant was “Countess of Shaftesbury.” Ecstatic, Whittlesey realized
that the mystery had deepened: “Countess” had never been offered in
commercial trade in the United States. Where had the California
gardener obtained the plant? Alas, the gardener had no
recollection. It may have been a gift, or a trade, or perhaps was
received under an incorrect name. We’ll never know.
The Rarest Rosemary
Christine Wolters wasn’t particularly looking for a rare
rosemary when she noticed an odd-colored shoot on one of the
upright rosemaries at her Mayfields Nursery in Surrey, England, in
the early 1990s. This unusual shoot’s pale green leaves were edged
with white. Wolters first thought it might have been a damaged
shoot or one with a virus infection, but she took a cutting.
She was familiar with variegation among rosemaries–and its
rarity. In the mid-1600s, an herbalist enthusiastically described
rosemaries variegated in both gold and silver. By the early 1990s,
gold-edged rosemaries could be found by those determined to seek
them out, but the silver variegation had vanished. Wolters, a
long-time commercial grower of rosemaries, speculated that perhaps
the silver rosemary was less hardy than other rosemaries and had
succumbed to cold winters.
Luckily, Wolters’s variegated rosemary shoot rooted readily. The
following year, she took ten cuttings from the original and planted
all in the nursery’s open fields. For five years, shoulder to
shoulder with the regular rosemaries, this upright plant proved its
vigor and hardiness and produced a strong, aromatic scent as well.
Wolters carefully monitored the plant’s growth and progress and at
last presented it to the plant registrar of the Royal Horticultural
Society. The plant has been named Silver Spires (Rosmarinus officinalis.)
Did Wolters find the long-lost silvered rosemary of Elizabethan
England? Probably not. “Silver Spires” is a sport of a plain,
upright rosemary, but we haven’t a clue to the origin of the
earlier silver cultivar. Evidently, the two have genetic quirks
that produce variegated leaves. If it proves itself and continues
to be propagated, ‘Silver Spires’ may delight gardeners for
centuries to come.
Rise and Fall of a Dame’s-Rocket
Most gardeners think of dame’s-rocket (Hesperis matronalis) as
an old-fashioned plant. Four hundred years ago, gardeners held the
same opinion. They, and their ancestors before them, were familiar
with the single, fragrant, four-petaled white, purple or striped
blossoms that the plant produced in early summer. During the
following century, however, some plants of each color began to
sport double blooms; of these, the white form was the hardiest and
By the Victorian era, double white dame’s-rockets grew
throughout the United Kingdom. Parks featured great drifts of
them–hundreds of thousands of plants that perfumed the summer air
as visitors strolled the paths. They were favored in gardens and
the cut-flower trade. Yet they vanished rapidly, just as the
double-blooming purple and striped sorts had before them. Gertrude
Jekyll, writing in the early 1900s, lamented the absence of the
double white dame’s-rocket.
The sudden demise of this flower points to a cataclysmic event,
probably a fast-moving virus. Supporting this theory was the
discovery some years back of a weak, virus-ridden double white
dame’s-rocket in an old Irish garden. Tissue-culturing the plant
eliminated the virus and produced healthy plants that are now being
marketed in the British Isles.
Andy Van Hevelingen is propagating descendents of the cloned
double white dame’s-rocket at his herb nursery in Newberg, Oregon.
He received an English plant from some globe-trotting friends and
let it grow to bloom; the fragrance, he says, is exquisite. The
plant produces no seeds, so from the original he propagated a
number of cuttings. The plants are healthy, and Van Hevelingen
expects to offer them for sale eventually.
Does the virus that infected the Irish plant and possibly wiped
out the Victorian plants threaten today’s double white
dame’s-rocket? Quite possibly. And because vegetative propagation,
including tissue culture and rooting from cuttings, produces
genetically identical plants, such an attacker could quickly
destroy an entire population. With expert breeding and propagation,
however, the double dame’s-rocket may once again become a garden
The Journey of Lost Plants
How did these plants disappear? Some, like Victorian sleeping
caps and snuffboxes, fell victim to fickle fashion. When lovely
bunches of cut violets could be sold readily on the street and in
florists’ shops, they remained in cultivation. Even after the
flower’s popularity had fallen, cultivation continued as local
tradition and nostalgia supported the trade, but eventually the
market dried up–and so did the commercial cultivation of
Gardens styles change, too, notes Jim Becker of Goodwin Creek
Gardens in Williams, Oregon. Victorian gardens were influenced by
the formal parterres and other elaborate plantings of the previous
generation, and imported, exotic varieties were particularly
popular. Gertrude Jekyll’s later call for simpler, less
labor-intensive gardens changed garden fashion promptly. Her “wild”
style of gardening and emphasis on sturdy natives contrasted with
the Victorian love of fussy exotic plants.
Social and economic upheavals affect plant availability, too.
The Great Depression of the 1930s dealt a hard blow to the
Rhinebeck violet greenhouses: people didn’t have money to spend on
such frivolities as cut violets. During World War II, all arable
land in England was turned to food production. Gardeners and
plantsmen transplanted their prized herbs and ornamentals into the
hedgerows, hoping to retrieve them when the war was over, but not
every plant survived.
Plants that have been bred for their bloom, scent, or other
isolated characteristics may also be less hardy than their parents.
Spontaneous mutations, such as that producing the double
dame’s-rocket, may render the new plant more vulnerable than the
species to disease, pests, cold, or drought.
Even today, plants get lost through neglect. According to Andy
Van Hevelingen, seed and plant companies cast aside plants that
don’t sell well to make room for new varieties. He estimates that
10 to 20 percent of plants are replaced in the larger catalogs
every year. Some are certainly worthy plants that have simply not
achieved enough popularity to remain in the catalog.
The Return Trip
Plant propagation proceeds slowly to stabilize the desired
characteristics of a new or newly rediscovered plant. As stocks are
built up, the plant will be offered for sale. Out of the sheltered
nursery environment, however, it may face viruses and other hazards
and prove less hardy than first thought.
The biggest question, however, is this: Will enough gardeners
buy it? If they do, the plant’s future looks good. If they don’t,
the plant may return to obscurity, found only in the gardens of
those who appreciate it enough to grow it and remember it.
Doree Pitkin is a former assistant editor of The Herb Companion and an
herb book editor for Interweave Press in Loveland, Colorado.