The genus Viola contains nearly 500 species of flowering plants distributed on every continent except Antarctica, though most live in the temperate parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Their common name is violet. Most violets are perennial plants four to eight inches tall, with palmate or heart-shaped leaves and small purple, yellow, or white flowers. There are a few annual and biennial species found in Europe, and a few woody-stemmed shrubs found in Southern Europe and South America.
Today, violet is the common name most often used for the small wildflower and its cultivated varieties; pansy refers to the larger garden flower first bred from wild violets in the early 19th century, and viola and violetta are common names for cultivated flowers intermediate in size between pansies and violets. However, in the past, all of these names were used as common names for the wild violet, and some species of violet today are commonly called pansies. African violets and dogtooth violets are members of other plant families and not related to Viola species.
The violet’s importance in history and literature stems mostly from the lovely, strong fragrance found in the blossoms of several European species. Chief among the scented violets is Viola odorata, the sweet violet, a soft-stemmed plant four inches tall with purple, lavender, or white flowers. Native to Europe, North Africa, and Asia, sweet violets were among the first flowers ever grown commercially. They were sold in markets in Athens as early as 400 BCE and were so valued that the violet became the city’s symbol. Violets were used in cooking and to make wine, perfume, purple dye, garlands (Aphrodite is described as “violet- crowned”), and medicines. Mentioned by ninth-century BCE Greek poet Homer, seventh- and sixth-centuries BCE Greek poet Sappho, fourth-century BCE Greek botanist Theophrastus, first-century BCE Roman poet Virgil, and first-century CE Roman encyclopedist Pliny, the violet was second among flowers only to the rose.
As a medicine, the ancients believed that violets could “comfort and strengthen the heart,” and this may be the source of another of the plant’s common names, heartsease. Violets were also thought to moderate anger, aid in sleeping, and cure gout and stomach complaints. The Romans made a wine from violets that was thought to prevent epileptic fits. Violets were also highly esteemed among Islamic cultures. They were cultivated in Iran and Arabia in antiquity. A treatise from 904 CE, probably translated from an earlier text, describes how to care for and propagate violets. A Muslim proverb proclaims, “The excellence of the violet is as the excellence of Islam above all other religions.” The Middle East may be the place of origin of the so-called Parma violets, whose double flowers are renowned for their fragrance. Once thought to be a strain of Viola odorata, Parma violets are now often considered to derive from a different species.
In Europe, violets were used in cooking, cosmetics, and medicine, and as a strewing herb. Again, it was the flowers’ sweet scent that made the plant so valuable. English herbalist John Gerard’s Herball (1597) declares, “The mind conceiveth a certain pleasure and recreation by smelling and handling those most odoriferous flowers,” and says that they cure inflammation and comfort the heart. English herbalist John Parkinson wrote in 1629, “Violets are Spring’s chiefe flowers for beauty, smell and use.”
Before sugar was readily available from the New World plantations, violet blossoms were used to sweeten foods, including meat. The dried and crystallized flowers have been used as a cake decoration and sweetmeat since medieval times, and in France, violets were also made into a syrup used in cooking. Violet plants were frequently grown in pots on windowsills, as well as in monastery and cottage gardens. The flowers were not the only part of the plant used: the entire plant can be eaten cooked or raw; its leaves contain vitamins A and C and other antioxidants. In early medicine, violets were most often used as a soporific or soothing medicine, a laxative and diuretic, a treatment for skin inflammations, or an expectorant.
The flower’s dusky color (most species have purple flowers, though there are also yellow and white violets), the plant’s small size and lowness, and the fact that the blossoms often “nod,” or turn their faces down, made the violet frequently a symbol of modesty or shyness and gave rise to the expression “shrinking violet.” The 16th-century French saint Francis de Sales used the violet as an image for a widow: “A true widow is in the church as a March Violet, shedding around an exquisite perfume by the fragrance of her devotion and always hidden under ample leaves of her lowliness and by her subdued coloring, showing the spirit of her mortification. She seeks untrodden and solitary places.”
William Shakespeare (1564-1616), on the other hand, mentioned the violet several times but never described it as modest. Instead, he sometimes described a peculiar trait of the violet’s perfume: the way it appears to come and go. Actually, the scent does not disappear, but it contains a substance that desensitizes the nose’s scent receptors: after the first burst, the nose grows numb to the fragrance, then recovers and is able to register the scent again. Shakespeare referred to this phenomenon in Twelfth Night, describing a strain of music by saying, “It came o’er my ear like the sweet sound / That breathes upon a bank of violets, / Stealing and giving odor.” And in Hamlet, “A violet in the youth of primy nature, / Forward, not permanent; sweet, not lasting, / The perfume and suppliance of a minute; / No more.” Shakespeare also honored the violet’s fragrance in these famous lines: “To guild refined gold, to paint the lily, / To throw perfume on the violet, / Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”
French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) chose Viola odorata as the emblem of the House of Bonaparte; it was also a favorite flower of the Empress Josephine, who raised violets at Malmaison. After being banished to Elba, Napoleon pledged to return to France when the violets blossomed again, and his followers wore violets in their buttonholes to show their support. When Josephine died, sweet violets were planted on her grave. Napoleon plucked some of these flowers and wore them in a locket, which was found around his neck after his death.
Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise, established the commercial culture of the supremely fragrant double violets near Parma, in northern Italy, where she moved in 1817. The mild climate there suits these flowers and gave them the nickname “Parma violets.” In 1819, British poet John Keats wrote about them to his wife: “I hope you have a good store of double violets—I think they are the
Princesses of flowers, and in a shower of rain almost as fine as barley-sugar drops are to a schoolboy’s tongue.”
The United States
In contrast to the high esteem in which violets have been held in Europe and the Middle East, Americans seem on the whole to have been less impressed by violets. Perhaps this is because our native species are mostly scentless. However, many Indian tribes used violets in cooking and medicine, and four states have chosen the violet as their state flower. The violet’s modest popularity exploded when Parma violets were introduced to the United States in the 19th century. By the end of the century, they had become an essential flower for corsages. They were raised outdoors in fields near San Francisco, California, and indoors in greenhouses in the Hudson River valley, where the cultivation of Parma violets became a small industry. By 1920, there were 138 such greenhouses, shipping violets to every city east of the Mississippi. They were worn first at the waist of a woman’s gown, and later, when styles changed, at the shoulder. One writer, whose father owned such a greenhouse in the 1920s, remembers,
Throughout the country, no evening function was complete without fine gowns displaying a bunch of fragrant, rich-colored violets. It was only after three decades of this fashion that women changed styles and took to gardenias and then to orchids. Thus Rhinebeck, in 1976, had but one grower with a few houses of a nonfragrant single violet. ... This rise and fall of an industry tells nothing of the flowers that were grown. ... The fragrance of a bouquet of fifty Parma violets was ineffable.
Today, while pansies are an extremely important garden plant, they are the only member of the genus Viola of any real commercial significance in the United States. Our native wild violets are often considered weeds, and the cultivation of sweet and Parma violets is limited mainly to specialists in heirloom plants. In Europe, violets retain some of their earlier commercial importance. But climate change and overharvesting have caused populations of many wild species, including Viola odorata, to shrink. They are still raised for specialty culinary uses, especially around Toulouse in southern France, and for the perfume industry. Violet scent is an ingredient in such modern perfumes as L’Interdit and Xeryus, though today much violet scent is produced synthetically.
Coon, Nelson. The Complete Book of Violets. South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes, 1977. Martin, Tovah. Heirloom Flowers. New York: Fireside Books, 1999.
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