That which above all yields the sweetest smell in the air is the Violet.
– Sir Francis Bacon, Of Gardens, 1625
The sweet violet (Viola odorata, aka common or English violet) has been prized for millennia as a highly-scented garden flower and medicinal herb, lending its delicious fragrance and vibrant colour to perfume, potpourri and food.
All parts of this plant, which contains salicylic acid, have therapeutic value. The Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 460-370 BCE) prescribed violets, which were used thereafter in folk medicine as an expectorant for respiratory disorders such as whooping cough, as a purgative, to encourage appetite, cure insomnia and treat eye, ear and skin infections.
Medieval culinary recipes called for violet-flavoured custards and omelettes, as well as a food colouring made from a syrup of violet blossoms and cowslip (primrose). Violet water and perfume, popular birthday gifts, would have been essential for keeping overpowering body odours at bay. Candied violets, a 19th century French delicacy, are still made today by brushing fresh flowers with egg white or sugar-water syrup and sprinkling with fine sugar.
The flower has been associated with purity and the Virgin Mary. Napoleon’s wife, Joséphine, so favoured the violet that it became a Bonaparte family symbol, and in the Victorian language of flowers, when plants were used by lovers to send discreet messages, the violet stood for modesty and faithfulness.
This blossom has appeared in many famous artworks, from medieval manuscripts to the late-15th century French tapestry, The Lady and the Unicorn, to Manet’s Bouquet of Violets and many more. Poets have opined about the modest mauve flower, too. A ‘nodding violet’ grows on a bank in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Goethe writes of ‘a pretty little violet’, blushing quietly in the meadow (Das Veilchen / The Violet), Wordsworth likens his dead sweetheart to a half-hidden ‘violet by a mossy stone’ in The Lost Love, and Cristina Rossetti frequently uses the short-lived spring blossom as a metaphor for youth and brief-flowering love. Here is an excerpt from To Violets by Robert Herrick (1591-1674):
Yet you are
More sweet than any.
You’re the maiden posies,
And so graced
To be placed
‘Fore damask roses.
V. odorata is native to Europe, not Canada. Nevertheless, sweet violets appeared in the grass at my childhood home – escaped garden plants that showed up every spring like uninvited yet welcome guests. We would gather them by the handful and set their short, delicate stems in a tiny silvered vase. The fragrance of these precious little nosegays lasted only a short time, but oh, how sweet they were!
When I was a young girl, my mother gave me a tiny cottage-shaped bottle of violet perfume. She had received it – empty – as a trinket from her aunt when she was a girl. To this day, it still retains a whiff of the fragrance, which is how I came to know the old-fashioned, sweet and powdery scent made since 1921 by Lownds-Pateman of Torquay. A couple of years ago, in a fit of nostalgia, I purchased two bottles of the emerald-green perfume from eBay. (I gave one to my mom.) It’s still the same, heady fragrance that I remember, but I don’t know that I actually want to go around wearing it!
Such sweet attributes make the modest violet one of my favourite flowers. I do miss the little clumps that once adorned our lawn!