Cuttings from the flower Garden - Violets
Whilst flicking through my childhood scrapbook of pressed flowers, I came across a bunch of violets still held together by a thin piece of raffia and written underneath it, in my childish hand was ‘A posy of violets over 100 years old (1976).’ I had been pressing flowers for a number of years, learning their common names, when I discovered these violets in the leaves of a book that belonged to my grandmother. She was happy to give them to me and told me that they were over a hundred years old. To this day I regret not asking her more about them. Who they were for and who they were from? But even at this distance it thrills me to know that maybe they were a love token belonging to a great grandparent.
Viola odorata is a much loved wild flower and has been sold as a cut flower for many years. My mother can remember buying bunches of Devon violets in London in the early 1950s. An early herald of spring, along with primroses, both these flowers would have been picked in the wooded countryside and taken to towns to be sold. Their rich mauve colour and delicious scent would surely woo the most intractable suitor. Shakespeare mentions them in Hamlet:
‘A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute;
The word ‘suppliance’ is no longer used today, but in Elizabethan times this phrase implied temporary pleasure or gratification.
You don’t see them for sale as much now, pushed out of shops by their showier contemporaries Daffodils, jonquils and tulips.
Violets were forced into early flowering in the new ‘Peach and Grape House’ at Saltram House Devon in 1784. At Polesdon Lacey in the lead up to the Second World War, ‘A complete row of frames was devoted to Violets (the single type Princess of Wales) which were Mrs Greville’s favourite flower, and these we had flowering from early November onwards’. Violets would also be amongst the flowers sent up to town residences from the country and would be carefully packed in special hampers which contained wicker work trays.
In about 1820 a hardy variety of violet was introduced from Russia. It flowered in autumn and spring and in winter if the weather was mild. It proved tougher than its Neapolitan cousin, the Parma violet, which had been used as a forced flower for wealthy people who could afford glass houses. In the West Country the Russian violets were grown on sunny south facing banks. A number of people grew and improved the varieties, amongst them George Lee who in the 1870s had discovered a seedling which he called ‘Victoria Regina’. He noted that ‘I gather from my present experience that there will be a great demand for these flowers in the larger cities and towns of the United Kingdom. They have only to be known to be appreciated. Even the working classes give them the preference at an advanced price’. They were preferred to all other Violets in London’s Covent Garden.
I have memories of my Granny having a birthday cake decorated with crystallized violets and I still love the taste of a violet cream, its delicate flavour dispersing in my mouth.
This spring I decided that I had been too long without these lovely plants so I bought four from a nursery. I had seen them often on the shaded, woodland bank tantalisingly close to my garden, but they had never entered it of their own accord. But of course, as soon as I had bought some plants, I was rewarded with some tiny self-sown seedlings of a delicate white violet popping up under our cherry tree!
As with so many things, the popularity of violets as cut flowers has dwindled but I would urge you to take a fresh look as this wonderful little flower, whose scent surely packs a punch way above its weight. I wonder if it can be grown hydroponically and then the whole plant, root ball and all, could be incorporated in to a bouquet. Something I must try, unless somebody has tried it already?
It is time that we brought back this flower and used it for spring weddings. Bunched together with primroses, the sulphur yellow and deep purple are the perfect combination as a decoration for an intimate dinner or a jovial lunch with friends. Let’s grow more.