On the first day of spring my gardening neighbour Liz and I shared our mutual delight at the masses of purple and white violets blooming under our fruit trees and in the surrounding hedgerows.
Once cultivated in every English garden, more than 300 years ago plant collector John Parkinson wrote of his 'choise flower of delight: the Garden Violets are so well knowne unto all that either keepe a Garden, or hath but once come into it, that I shall lose labour and time to describe that which is so common.'
The sweet violet - viola odorata - was one of the first flowers to be grown commercially and in 400 BCE crops were being imported to Athens from specialist nurseries in the Attica peninsula. The Athenians revered the violet, decorating their homes with its blooms and wearing violet wreaths at banquets to help prevent hangovers! The violet's medicinal properties later made it an important component of the medieval herb garden. It is one of the few plants to contain salicylic acid, the chief ingredient in aspirin (willow bark is another) and the friars who once tended what are now our Waterfurlong plots would have used flower, leaf and root for pain-relieving salves and tinctures. Today there is interest in the violet as a potential cure for cancer of the mouth and throat.
Pretty and useful though the plant is, most of us associate violets with fragrance - all the more intoxicating because it is so elusive. There is a chemical reason for this; a major component of the violet's scent is a ketone compound called ionone, which temporarily desensitises the receptors of the nose. One moment you can smell it, the next you can't.
Francis Bacon, the philosopher, statesman and gardener declared 'The daintiest Smells of Flowers, are out of those Plants whose leaves smell not: as Violets.' As violet expert Elizabeth Farrar observed, 'This was a surprising assertion from one whose practical interest in science was such that he died, in 1626, from a chill caught whilst stuffing a fowl with snow, intending to observe the effect of cold of the preservation of flesh, for disturb the heart-shaped leaves of a clump of sweet violets and the scent released is almost as powerful as the flowers.' (1). The fragrance of the leaves is fresher and greener than that of the flowers and a darling of modern perfumiers, but the Victorians and Edwardians had a love affair with the more powdery-scented blooms and the patronage of Queen Victoria and Princess Alexandra transformed the humble violet into a flower of fashion.
Gardeners had long been selecting the most unusual, most scented and sturdiest-stemmed violets in their gardens; the plants spread by two means: runners (like strawberries) and seed, which is carried by ants. In 1814 Sir Joseph Banks's gardener, Isaac Oldacre, who had previously worked for the Russian Czar, brought back to England a number of Eastern European violet cultivars and nurserymen started experimenting with crosses. In 1873 George Lee of Clevedon in Somerset hybridised a Russian violet with viola devoniensis to create the greatly admired, deep blue Victoria Regina, with blooms more than an inch across. The Clevedon Mercury of 1883 reported: 'Many hundreds of thousands of bunches have gone by rail and post this season to all parts of the world, for the Clevedon Violets, thanks to our old and esteemed friend, George Lee, are now a household word. We have been assured on the most reliable authority that our postal bags have been redolent with the perfume of this once lowly, now Queenly, flower and that the perfume crept out of our Railway Parcel Office to the astonishment of strangers.'(1)
Meanwhile, in the warmer climes of France, Armand Millet had been endeavouring to breed an exceptionally long-lasting bloom for the cut-flower trade. The patient genius for which he was known paid off when he introduced the beautiful Princesse de Galles (Princess of Wales, named for Princess Alexandra) and before long violets from the South of France were flooding the English market. Flower-girls with baskets piled high with violet posies became a familiar sight in most cities, the polluted air 'laden with the violets' perfume' according to The Gardener's Chronicle. By 1890 the Chronicle was reporting that 'thousands of city clerks appear at the office every morning with a fresh bunch of violets in their buttonholes, whilst 3,000 of the choicest varieties are grown under frames at Windsor to satisfy the requirements of the royal family and the court.'(2)
British flower growers were determined to see off French competition and by 1916 Dawlish in Devon had become England's most important centre for violet cultivation, with a daily 'violet express' train carrying the cut flowers from Devon and Cornwall to London's Covent Garden Market.
In 1936 violets were still being delivered daily to Queen Elizabeth and the ladies of the court but the flower was beginning to fall out of fashion. During WWII the violet fields were requisitioned for food crops and the harsh winters of the late 1940s brought the final death knell. Although violets continue to be grown on a small scale in Provence for the French perfume industry, their labour-intensive cultivation has never returned to England.
Today only two nurseries in the South-West specialise in the old highly-scented varieties, many of which have sadly been lost to us. Sweet violets now grow only in the wild or in forgotten corners of old orchards and vicarage gardens. Wouldn't it be lovely to bring them back and once again find huge, fragrant bunches on every flower stall in spring?
SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
(1) With grateful thanks to Elizabeth Farrar, author of 'Pansies, Violas and Sweet Violets', Hurst Village Publishing, 1989
(2) Kind courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library www.biodiversitylibrary.org
Copyright © Karen Meadows 2019