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The Search for Fragrant Spring Violets

There are many kinds of violets, the wild ones that grow along the side of the road, the yellow and pinks that are a bit unusual and then the fragrant ones that are more difficult to find. The Victorians loved fragrant violets. They were one of the blooms used to send a message. I am sure they grew in Cape May in the early days.

My quest for fragrant violets began long ago when I was a high school student. I was fascinated by the references to sweet violets in some of my favorite readings. I realized that from the ancient Greeks and Romans to Mohammed and the early Christian writers there were references to sweet or fragrant violets. The early Christian writers referred to the Virgin Mary as the Violet of Humility.  Shakespeare as well as the Romantic and Victorian poets boasted of an intimacy with this plant. Byron tells of its color and fragrance:

The sweetness of the violets’
Deep blue eyes,
Kissed by the breath of heaven,
Seems colored by its skies.


My disappointment was keen when I crawled about the gardens sniffing the lush purple carpets of spring blooms only to find that the violets in our Franklinville gardens were not fragrant. Numerous violets grew throughout the many acres of our grounds, so imagine my frustration when not one of the violets had even the slightest hint of fragrance. Like Don Quixote, I sought the impossible dream!

I began to scour garden books, but found only scant information about fragrant violet plants. My obsession for fragrant violets was such that I found white organza material with deep purple violets embroidered on it to make my 4-H project prom gown. Needless to say, I carried a nosegay of fragrant violets.  In the ‘60s, florists were still able to readily obtain large, fragrant Parma violets from Rhinebeck N Y.

This made the search to obtain the plants for these fragrant favorites to plant in my garden even more intense. My first clue for locating the pieces of the violet puzzle was found long ago in an old book discovered in the library, The Fragrant Garden by Louise Beebe Wilder. When this book was written in 1932, fragrant violets were readily available in garden catalogs, and the author wrote of planting more than 50 on her hillside. But by the time I read the book in the late ‘60, I couldn’t find a source for them.  This has changed now.

More than 10 years later, many of my violet questions were answered in another old book that was given to me – Nelson Coon’s informative work, The Complete Book of Violets. Coon gives an excellent history of this plant, tracing its origins from ancient Greek medical journals of Hippocrates in 446 BC. He lists uses for the blooms and leaves for everything from headaches, stomach complaints, heart and nervous disorders, to a laxative. People also used violets in the Middle Ages for a host of ailments. Today we know that violets are considered a good source of Vitamin A and C. Coon’s book tells how to cultivate as well as use these plants. I have used many of his recipes for the violet event I host each year called “Fragrant Violets.”

About 25 years ago, I finally bought my first Viola odorata. Since then I have planted and propagated many of the easytogrow plants in both purple and rosy pink. I collect some of the others, but have not had as much luck as I have with the V Odorata.

All but gone from the landscape for many years, the sweet or fragrant violets flourished around the turn of the century and early in the 1900s. Coon gives a detailed story, with photos of those grown commercially in the area around Rhinebeck, N Y.

A rather detailed history of this era of the violet story is repeated in Tovah Martin’s book, The Essence of Paradise. She also tells how the Logee’s Greenhouse family ‘pulled’ through the depression peddling bunches of fragrant violets door to door. I spoke to and visited with the late Joy Logee Martin, who was considered one of the foremost specialists on fragrant violets. Joy told me that these violets, so favored by the Victorians, were again becoming popular with the renewed interest in antique fragrant flowers. Besides the hardy viola odorata and its hardy offspring, there are Parma violets from which most violet perfume is made. These are from places in Italy and France, but are not winterhardy in our area and need some protection. I have tried these from time to time in protected areas but have not had good luck.

Joy also added some tips about keeping the picked violet blooms fresh. She said, “Violets drink from the blooms as well as from the stems. We always dipped them in water before making the bunches.” Joy also told me how they grew the tender Prince of Wales, Parma, and other fragrant special nonhardy varieties that had to be dug in the fall and grown in a cold greenhouse. These were lifted and planted right in the greenhouse benches. Usually they bloomed by Valentine’s Day, but were in demand whenever they were available.
Now I happily grow both the fragrant and hardy Viola odorata and V. Odorata rose. They have beautiful colors. The first a deep purple. The second a rosy pink. Both are hardy to Zone 4, which is quite a bit north of here. Remember not to plant them too close to the ordinary wild violets, lest they mix with them and lose their fragrance. A plant or two will soon make a carpet of violet if given a woodsy spot and kept moist.

Culture

Although violets will do well in almost any soil, most prefer a somewhat moist, but welldrained soil in a semi-shaded location. They grow nicely under deciduous trees because they receive sun in early spring when they need it and shade in summer also when they need it. Compost from decayed leaves works well.  Too much fertilizer will create beautiful foliage, but few flowers. We use a scant dose of Osmocote 14-14-14 timerelease fertilizer on plants grown in one-gallon pots. The ones in the garden get a spring dose of 10-10-10 most years. Notice both of these fertilizers do not have high first numbers (nitrogen). A good deep drink of water about every other week in summer is good for them if it is hot and dry. A thorough soaking with the water going down below roots is needed. Light mulch will insure good moisture retention.

Although the best way to grow hardy sweet violets is in the garden, a pot or two can be grown to bring inside during late winter. They must be kept in an unheated porch or cold frame until February. This insures some dormancy. When it is too warm, the leaves become pale and the blooms are small. Unfortunately, when it is above 50 degrees at night these violets do not set buds. It is a challenge to bring in a pot or two and get them to bloom. Success is insured if a very cool, sunny area is available. Our cool greenhouse works fine to gain several weeks over the pots in the unheated hoop houses. Although the night temperature is often quite cool, the sunny days are pleasantly warm, making for excellent conditions for blooms brought into the house for a day or so. They brighten and delight any company that comes to visit.  Once the weather settles, a violet in a planter near a door is perfect.
While searching for some fragrant plants for my lecture at the flower show a few years ago, I found all of the one-gallon pots of V. Odorata in bloom in our unheated wildflower greenhouse. Since it was almost time to uncover the houses, I ran to the outside and cut a large hole in the opaque plastic just where the violets were. A burst of fragrance enveloped me in an intense spring scent. What a marvelous treat! The intense fragrance of sweet violet can be perceived by the human nose for short periods of time only. When we become satiated, it takes a few minutes until we once again can smell the violet. This fascinated Shakespeare and his characters comment on it in Twelfth Night, Hamlet, Henry VIII, and a few other plays.

If blooms are picked to wear or put in a vase, be sure they have enough water. They drink deeply, and also like to be misted.  If the stems are placed in tepid water and allowed to drink for several hours, they will last longer when worn.  I find that after a few hours at room temperature, the whole glass of violets can be put in a refrigerator for a few hours to finish the conditioning process.

Many years ago, small bouquets were readily available from florists and vendors. Today it is almost impossible to get them unless a florist grows them and is willing to spend the time needed to pick and condition these delicate blooms. Like lilies of the valley, they are a seasonal treat to be enjoyed only when in bloom.

It wouldn’t seem like spring without these fragrant favorites. It is sometimes difficult to take the time from our busy lives to smell the flowers, but it is really worth the effort to get down on hands and knees as a rite of spring to smell the violets.

Violet class and light spring lunch, Saturday April 24 at 11a.m. Includes a craft and a fragrant violet.www.tripleoaks.com calendar has details or call for a flyer or to sign up now 856-694-4272 pre-registration only.

lorraine-kieferLorraine Kiefer has gardened all of her life. She is a garden writer, floral designer and professional horticulturist. Lorraine teaches many classes at Triple Oaks nursery and Herb Garden in Franklinville, NJ. Email Lorraine@tripleoaks.com for garden help or leave your questions below! www.tripleoaks.com