History of Heirloom Herbs


| December/January 1998


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 Coast florists.

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 bygone eras.



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.







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