Sweet Violet Plants

"That which above all yields the sweetest smell in the air is the violet." —Sir Francis Bacon

| April/May 1993

When I was a child in western New York State, I thought violets had no scent. The ones that grew in my mother’s rock garden certainly didn’t, although they were very pretty. However, in one of my favorite books, set at the turn of the century, the heroine’s mother always wore violet cologne, and this puzzled me: why name a perfume after a scentless flower? I kept sniffing the blossoms I picked, hoping to catch even a hint of fragrance.

Eventually, I discovered another kind of violets growing wild in the lawn. I had overlooked them because of my childhood logic: plants that grew in the garden were flowers, and those in the lawn were weeds. But one day, when little else was yet in bloom, I picked a bouquet of the lawn violets and buried my nose in it. I was swept away by the extraordinary aroma, which seemed to me the essence of spring; I knew immediately that this was the scent that my fictional friend’s mother had worn in 1910, and that I would never tire of it.

The fragrant little flowers thriving in the grass, cheerfully disregarding occasional summertime swipes with the lawn mower, were a variety of sweet violet (Viola odorata), a plant that has been grown and loved in many cultures for more than 2000 years. The species is native to Europe, Asia Minor, and North Africa but is naturalized widely in North America.

Though America boasts many attractive ­native violets, such as the V. cucullata of my mother’s rock garden or V. pedata, the bird-foot violet, these usually bloom later in the spring than V. odorata and are not so powerfully fragrant.

Violets Through the Centuries

Rub thy face with violets and goat’s milk, and there is not a prince in the world who will not follow thee.
—Old Gaelic beauty tip

The mention of sweet violets ­immediately evokes an image of a nineteenth-century Covent Garden throng­ed with flower sellers hawking their wares, of Eliza Doolittles offering delectable nosegays for gentlemen’s buttonholes. Yet, favored as violets were in the Victorian age, their popularity began centuries before.



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