"That which above all yields the sweetest smell in the air is the violet." —Sir Francis Bacon
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.
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.
As early as 320 b.c., the Greek writer Theophrastus described nurseries which specialized in growing violets to be sold at the market in Athens, thus anticipating the Victorian flower trade by millennia. The ancient Athenians so appreciated the violet’s unpretentious charm that they adopted it as a symbol of the city, much as each American state has a representative flower today. The Greeks also used violets in cookery as a substitute for honey.
The violet received frequent mention in ancient literature. A sixth-century bishop writing to those laying out a nunnery garden in France accompanied his letter by a gift of violet plants; a tenth-century Persian gardener’s handbook included instructions for the care and cultivation of violets.
Along with the rose and the lily, the violet was one of the three favorite flowers of medieval times, and was depicted in the company of knights, dragons, and unicorns on tapestries and illuminated manuscripts. In England as in ancient Greece, it was valued as a substitute for honey, and to sweeten meat and game—a necessity in the days before reliable refrigeration. It was a favorite strewing herb for church, manor house, and cottage, and its fragrance was believed to ward off vermin as well as unpleasant smells. Because the violet grew wild, its many herbal virtues were available to all classes and levels of society.
A fifteenth-century gardening treatise in verse by “Master Jon, Gardener” listed the sweet violet among the flowers then in cultivation. The great sixteenth-century herbalists waxed enthusiastic: Gerard called it the garden’s “greatest ornament of all, chiefest beautie and most gallant grace.” Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry lists it as both a strewing herb and a good candidate for growing in pots.
Violets were considered to have health benefits as well; they were used to treat headaches, depression, and constipation. An insomnia cure dating from 1525 directs the sufferer to soak his feet in water and bind violets around his temples.
The violet’s popularity remained constant through the seventeenth century: John Parkinson in 1629 termed sweet violet the “choise flower of delight.” In the eighteenth century, violets began to be used to enhance toiletries and perfumes, and their favor as a fragrance and as a garden flower climbed steadily. France became the center of commercial cultivation, where whole fields of violets were grown for the perfume industry; and by the end of the century, sweet violets were also being cultivated in the New World.
Early in the nineteenth century, the blossom gained even greater prominence by its association with the Emperor Napoleon and his wife, who were devoted violet fanciers. The Empress Josephine grew fragrant violets at Malmaison and may have been responsible for introducing the tender, double Parma violet to Europe (see box, page 26); Napoleon, who took the violet for one of his emblems, liked to keep a bouquet of his favorite flower on his writing desk. The couple divorced in 1809, and Napoleon remarried. However, a year after Josephine’s death, Napoleon is said to have picked violets growing on her grave, and these were found in a locket he was wearing when he died six years later.
Young maids may wonder if the flowers or meanings be the sweeter.
—Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The Victorians were in love with violets. Through their penchant for attaching meanings to flowers, the violet became a symbol for modesty and fidelity. The plants’ low stature and the blossoms’ nodding habit may have led to the link with modesty, as well as to the phrase “shy (or shrinking) violet”. These assignments often put violets in the literary and artistic limelight. In Charlotte Brontë’s 1853 novel, Villette, Lucy Snowe accidentally intercepts a secret love letter, meant for her friend, which contains violets as a token of the sender’s devotion. A painting entitled The Violet’s Message by the pre-Raphaelite artist John Millais depicts a similar scene: a surprised-looking young woman is shown opening an envelope, out of which tumbles a bunch of violets.
The fragrance of sweet violets was a favorite in Victorian toiletries, and the blossoms were appreciated as well for their good looks; many a pressed violet found its way into the nature albums and dried-flower pictures proudly displayed in countless parlors. Victorian ladies sipped violet-leaf tea to treat nervous complaints, including the mysterious “vapors”. Commercially, the flowers were used in the manufacture of chemists’ litmus paper.
The cut-flower trade also began to take an interest in this simple wild flower. Ladies pinned bunches of violets to dresses or coats, while gentlemen displayed them in buttonholes or tucked them in hat brims. In England, these bouquets usually consisted simply of a bunch of blossoms surrounded by a ring of their leaves, but in France violets were often combined in posies with snowdrops or camellias. Their popularity as cut flowers led to a boom in violet breeding in England, America, and France and the founding of specialty nurseries. Many new cultivars were developed by crossing English sweet violets with a slightly hardier Russian species (V. suavis) to produce hardier, more disease-resistant plants whose flowers displayed a wider range of colors and were larger, with rounder, more attractive petals. Some of the cultivars available today originated during that fertile period. However, this extensive hybridization dulled the fragrance of the new varieties, and when post-Edwardian trends rendered violets old-fashioned, their scent had already lost its popular appeal.
One of the most famous cultivars to arise from the violet breeding boom was ‘The Czar’, a dark purple violet developed in 1863 and still available. Another purple blossom, ‘Victoria Regina’, was very popular during its namesake’s reign; long thought to have disappeared, it was rediscovered in 1987 on the site of the Clevedon violet nursery in England and is now being propagated again. The large, lavender, long-stemmed flowers of ‘Princess of Wales’ (1889) have never fallen out of favor with British cut-flower growers. ‘St. Helena’, a pale lavender-blue violet developed in 1897 and favored by the incomparable garden designer Gertrude Jekyll, is unfortunately no longer available.
My own favorite Victorian sweet violets include ‘Princess of Wales’; ‘John Raddenbury’, a medium-blue flower bred in Australia in 1895; and ‘Rawson’s White’, developed in 1888. I also grow the modern ‘Red Queen’, which was introduced in 1958. The last two are eager self-sowers; often the seedlings are stronger and better bloomers than the parent plants, and, like many violet cultivars, they do come true from seed.
Several fragrant subspecies of V. odorata have long been known, among them V. o. subsp. alba, which produces white flowers (the cultivar ‘Rawson’s White’ is thought to be simply an improved form of this subspecies), and V. o. subsp. rosea, which blooms pink to rosy red.
The descriptions of lost violets from centuries past are enough to make today’s fancier turn green with envy. Who would not delight in growing the double purple or double white varieties that Gerard grew in the sixteenth century? Unfortunately, the only doubles existing today are the tender Parmas (see box, page 26)—no hardy doubles survive. I’d love to have the purple-and-white spotted sort known in the eighteenth century; a spotted violet does exist today, but it is a form of a scentless native species, most often listed as V. sororia. Also unknown are the variegated-leaved forms used in Victorian times for bedding displays and the unusual ‘Cyclope’ (1905), which had a small ruff of white petals in the center of the flower surrounded by outer petals of blue, somewhat like a collarette dahlia. (The long-stemmed cultivar ‘Countess of Shaftsbury’, recently discovered by Canyon Creek Nursery, boasts a flower of the ‘Cyclope’ type but with a rose-pink inner rosette.) The “tree violets” occasionally mentioned in old gardening books refer not to a separate variety, but to the then-fashionable practice of growing violets in standard form.
Despite the loss of some forms, there is good news for the violet lover of today. Many older types are available from specialist nurseries, and there is renewed interest in rediscovering varieties believed to be lost, as in the case of ‘Victoria Regina’. The International Violet Association, an organization for those who would like to get in touch with other aficionados, publishes a newsletter of current information about violet growing. And at least one grower (see Sources for Violets, page 29) is reviving the practice of shipping cut-violet bouquets by mail, something that has not been widely done since the early years of this century. For those who would like to make the violet’s signature scent their own, many violet-scented toiletries are currently available, though not all contain natural violet fragrance (see The Scent of Violets, page 25).
Perhaps the easiest and most pleasant way to enjoy the scent of violets is to grow your own; fortunately, this is easy to do. In most areas, sweet violets are undemanding, fairly pest-free plants which reward minimum care with maximum results.
In the wild, V. odorata is low-growing, with a long taproot topped by a rosette of dark green, heart-shaped leaves; the plants spread freely by runners and often self-sow. Originally woodland plants, sweet violets thrive in damp, moisture-retentive soil fairly rich in organic material. A soil pH of 6.0 to 6.5 has been recommended as ideal, but sweet violets apparently tolerate a wide pH range. Highly acid soils, however, should be treated with lime.
The species is hardy to Zone 4 (–20°F), but many cultivars won’t survive winter temperatures below 0°F, and most will not bloom well if subjected to less than 10°F (Zone 7). So, if you grow violets for their flowers, give the plants winter protection—a cold frame or cool greenhouse—if winter temperatures are likely to drop below 10°F. They thrive in cooler temperatures and will not flower if the temperature rises above 45°F. Violets apparently do not require winter freezing or dormancy.
Within their range of hardiness, violets normally need no special care during the winter—a good cover of snow should provide sufficient insulation. If you aren’t sure whether a particular form is hardy in your area or if your winter weather is exceptionally cold and dry, you may improve the chance of survival by mulching. Crowns usually will not rot under mulch, but watch out for slugs.
Sweet violets bloom most prolifically when they receive lots of sunshine in early spring, but they grow poorly in heat, drought, or strong summer sun; southern gardeners usually find them difficult to grow, though they will do better in the humid than in the dry South. Light summer shade, or deep shade in the warmer zones of the violet’s range, encourages growth; an ideal site is under deciduous shrubs or trees.
Violets are best propagated in late spring after flowering. Divide mature crowns, or peg down runners until they develop roots, then detach them from the parent plant. Some varieties self-sow, and late spring is also the best time for moving the seedlings.
Raising violets from seed is difficult for several reasons. Some cultivars will not come true from seed, and larger-flowered varieties may not set seed at all. The seed is tiny and difficult to work with, and unless it is sown immediately after ripening, germination is likely to be unreliable. If you are just beginning to grow violets, I suggest that you buy plants or obtain divisions or offshoots from a friend. Any self-sown seedlings will be serendipitous and can be moved or left where they are.
Low-growing types—including the species, the subspecies alba and rosea, and the cultivar ‘Royal Robe’—will naturalize readily in the lawn, but the longer-stemmed cultivars that have been developed for use as cut flowers—such as ‘Princess of Wales’ and ‘Baronne Alice de Rothschild’—may be damaged by the lawn mower and are better confined to a shaded border, a rock garden, or an underplanting for deciduous trees or shrubs. Though the tallest varieties are no more than about 8 inches tall, looks can be deceiving: all sweet violets develop long taproots, and thus, the soil should be cultivated relatively deeply before planting. Also for that reason, the plants tend to be short-lived when grown in containers.
Plant spacing can be adapted to your situation. The plants are small and will tolerate some crowding, and they seem to grow better in groups than singly. However, spacing should allow for spreading by runners or self-sowing and for some spreading of individual crowns. Stray or overcrowded seedlings and runners are easy to remove and will tolerate transplanting. I usually plant groups of three to five plants 4 to 6 inches apart.
English gardeners favor some fertilizing, but Americans generally oppose it. I find that unless the soil is very lean, adding fertilizer can result in lush foliage but few blooms.
The familiar dark purple flowers are borne on short stems in the early spring (April or May in my Zone 6 garden in western New York State). The leaves, which remain on the plant all winter and through the few weeks of spring bloom, gradually die off as new leaves form in summer. Under optimum conditions of soil, light, and temperature, the plants may rebloom in the fall or even during a midwinter thaw.
The lovely, fragrant violet flowers of early spring are sterile and will not set any seed. Later on in summer, smaller flowers without petals are produced which self-pollinate without opening; these cleistogamous flowers set seed in capsules that look like tiny green globes, which can be removed or allowed to dry and scatter the seed.
The ideal time to pick violets is on a clear morning a few days after a good spring rain. They may also be picked in the evening. Flowers picked at midday will be less fragrant and will wilt much more quickly.
• A fragrant violet tea can be made by pouring boiling water over two to three teaspoons of violet leaves and steeping five minutes.
• Fresh violet leaves and flowers may be added to salads as edible garnishes. The leaves, which contain vitamins A and C, can have a laxative effect if eaten in large quantities.
• Try freezing single violet flowers in ice cubes to decorate summer drinks. Fill the ice tray a little less than half full of water and freeze. Place one violet blossom in each section, fill the rest of the way with water, and freeze again.
• Adopt a Victorian custom and wear fresh violets on your lapel in one of the posy holders widely available today. For an authentic touch, surround a bunch of the blossoms with a ring of their leaves.
• Decorate handmade candles with pressed violets: brush a little melted wax on the back of each flower, apply to the candle, and brush on more wax to seal.
Gather fresh, perfect violet flowers. Rinse them carefully, pat dry, and place on paper towels.
Beat one egg white until frothy but not stiff. Dip each flower in egg white and shake gently to remove excess. Sprinkle white superfine granulated sugar all over the flower, coating the back as well as the front. Place on a shallow tray lined with waxed paper.
Dry in the refrigerator for one to two days. Store for as long as a month in airtight containers layered with waxed paper and placed in a cool, dry location.
Use to garnish cakes, ice cream, fruit salads, pies, and so on. See photo, page 23.
Whip 1 cup of heavy cream until stiff. Fold in 2 cups of fine, fresh whole wheat bread crumbs (about four medium slices) and 1/4 cup crystallized raw (turbinado) sugar. Chill in the freezer until stiff but not hard.
Before serving, mix in a few crystallized violets, and garnish each serving with more of the same.
Keep the ground around the plants clean to discourage slugs. If they are a serious problem, I recommend a primitive but effective slug trap: bottle caps set in the ground and filled with flat beer.
Violets grown in hot, dry weather or in pots are likely targets for red spider mites. To prevent an infestation, spray the plants regularly with cool water. A mild infestation can be cured by washing the leaves with soapy water. Safer’s insecticidal soap will cure a more severe case: spray weekly until you see no pests for a couple of weeks. After either treatment, continue to spray regularly with cool water to prevent reinfestation. If possible, wait until the plants have finished blooming before spraying with insecticidal soap.
Those with a surfeit of violets—though this is hard to imagine—can always use them in cooking. As with other herbs, do not use chemical disease or pest controls (including insecticidal soap) on plants you wish to use for culinary purposes. However you choose to enjoy these cheerful, dainty flowers with their bewitching fragrance, you can be sure that you will be in good (and historical) company.
Kathleen S. Van Horn is a freelance writer and violet appreciator living in Rochester, New York.
For information about the International Violet Association, write to Elaine Kudela, Membership Secretary, 8604 Main Road, Berlin Heights, OH 44814-9620.
The suppliers listed below carry Parma violets as well as varieties of Viola odorata.
• Canyon Creek Nursery, 3527 Dry Creek Rd., Oroville, CA 95965. Catalog $1.
• Garden Gate Perennials, 1599 Berkshire Road, Gates Mills, OH 44040. In season, also provides cut violets by mail order. Price list free.
• Lamb Nurseries, 101 E. Sharp Ave., Spokane, WA 99202. Catalog free.
• Logee’s Greenhouses, 141 North St., Danielson, CT 06239. Catalog $3.
• Russell Graham, Purveyor of Plants, 4030 Eagle Crest Rd. NW, Salem, OR 97304. Catalog $2.