Violets (Viola Odorata) have long been associated with shrinking, shy types, but that’s so wrong. This little flower has much to say;
You’ll need to look hard for them but if you’re lucky you’ll find them peeking out of a woodland floor or the base of a thick hedge. Our native Violets may be shy and reclusive (hence shrinking violets) but they are brave at heart, shaking off the winter gloom, battling all kinds of inclement weather. And oh, when found, what delight they give, dainty and delicate, little bursts of purple pride (from lilac to amethyst), a heralder of Spring.
But there’s much more to violets than meets the eye. These sweet blooms have a pedigree heritage.
The Greeks and Romans used violets to make wine and perfume and in their mythological stories associated them with humility and humbleness. Which is probably how they came to denote the same in religion. According to Christianity, violets first grew when the Angel Gabriel told Mary of her impending pregnancy and were named Viola Odorata, meaning Our Lady’s Modesty. Ever since they been associated with spiritual wisdom and faithfulness and depicted in religious paintings as humility. The Victorians continued this theme, in the language of flowers, violets said ‘humble devotion’.
Simple and unshowy in looks, they have just 5 petals, tissue thin (it’s said men much prefer the darker shades, women the lighter). It’s perhaps the vibrant heart shaped leaves that frame them that makes them so appealing. They’ve certainly given them an association with love and devotion. Dreaming of violets is said to be a sign of falling in love (with a person or project). Then there’s the love story of Empress Josephine throwing Napoleon a posy of sweet violets when they first met. After he was defeated at Waterloo, before being sent to St Helena, he visited her grave . There he found sweet violets growing so he picked a bunch to take with him. After his death these were found in a locket around his neck.
Violets, particularly as a cut flower, were very fashionable during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The West country became a growing centre with production peaking in the 1930s. Violets were grown in walled flower fields, known as quillets, and sent to Covent Garden market. You can still see remnants of them on the western tip of Cornwall. In France too, an enthusiasm for violet breeding led to the cultivation of many new varieties with stronger perfumes, longer stems and larger flowers.
And so Violet became a fashionable girls name too for its association with beauty, delicacy and modesty. Perhaps epitomized by Violet Bonham Carter (the actress, Helena’s, grandmother and daughter of Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith) who fell in love with Winston Churchill in the summer of 1908, only to be badly let down by him. When the longed for proposal never came (he met his future wife, Clementine, the same summer), overwrought, she jumped off a Scottish cliff. Fortunately she survived unhurt, but her heart never recovered; she married Herbert Bonham Carter (a lowly diplomat), on the same day and in the same church, seven years after Winston.
Today violets are known for their sweet perfume, but it’s not an obvious scent, you’ll have to really squat down to get a noseful. But there’s a funny thing about this hidden smell, once you’ve had a sniff, it desensitizes the receptors in your nostrils and you can’t smell it again until the nerves relax again.
Viola Odorata aren’t just decorative, they have culinary uses too; a pungent sweet addition to desserts, fruit salads, and teas. Their heart-shaped leaves, a useful source of greens, can be eaten too, raw or steamed.
Candied or crystallized violets, made by preserving the flower in a coating of egg white and crystallised sugar or immersing the flower in a hot syrup, stirring until the sugar recrystallizes and dries, are also used for decorating or in aromatic desserts.
In Toulouse, France, candied violets are still made commercially, where they are known as violettes de Toulouse. Viola essence also flavours the liqueurs Creme Yvette, Creme de Violette, and Parfait d’Amour.
Here in Britain children and sweet-toothed adults love Parma Violets. These sweets originate from the 18th century when they were made from crushed violet petals, rosewater and sugar to form a flower pastry. Today they are manufactured by Swizzles Matlow using sugar, stearic acid, modified starch, glucose syrup, and anthocyanin!
So if you are out and about in the woods this weekend, keep a sharp eye out and you might just well find a few violets to delight your day.
My findings here come from a variety of carefully chosen internet sources. The writing up and literary interpretation is my own.