Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The violet – a tiny treasure.

Spring has so many stunning flowers: bold brassy daffodils and delicate fritillaries, sunny bright aconites and elegant narcissi to name but a few. But it’s often the shy little numbers that lurk in the shadows that tweak at my heart. The violet – Viola odorata - is one of them.

Not for nothing is the phrase for a shy, modest sort, ‘a shrinking violet’. The shrinking violet was the one on the edge of the dance floor, the modest little woman who never pushed herself forward. Pretty, simple, not showy.

And it’s the same in the borders of the garden, under the hedgerows and on the banks by the roadside. Out walking, cast your eye down and at this time of year and you can be surprised by a little group of violets. But not all of them are violet: those in the garden may be deep mauve or pale lilac, or you may even find white ones wild in the verges.

The Victorians were heavily into the symbolism of flowers - white violets were for candour – and the violet is known as a symbol of love. A hundred years ago an admirer might buy his girl a small posy of violets to pin on her lapel.

Grown en masse in Dorset, Devon and Cornwall especially for the market these little corsage produced healthy rural businesses. They were gathered in the morning, tied in bunches, packed in boxes, transported by rail to London for sale that same night.

But many tiny bunches were gathered in the fields and hedgerows that bordered cities too. They were also sold the same day, on street corners and outside theatres. More often than not they were the only livelihood for many a poor soul.

And in the days before refrigeration such a tender little bloom had to be sold immediately, before it drooped and died. The simple small token of love would be unpinned at home and put in a vase to be admired the next day. I remember that my grandmother had a tiny crystal vase especially for putting violets in to keep on her dressing table.

But Violets have hidden depths too: they can be used in all sorts of ways we have lost touch with today. Candied or crystallized – dipped in egg white and coated in sugar – they were used to decorate cakes and make into sweets. The dark green, kidney shaped leaves can be added to salads and the flowers too are edible. As a salad garnish they add colour and interest, and the flowers can be used to make salad dressing.

In the past violets were used extensively in cosmetics and toilet water. The flowers and leaves were steeped in water until they had rendered up their colour and scent. Medicinally they were made into teas or syrups for coughs and colds, and used as ointments and poultices for a variety of ailments.

Because the flower was popular in Victorian times so the name Violet became popular too. But the colour violet was also considered a powerful symbol in Victorian and Edwardian England possibly because of its closeness to purple, the colour that symbolises royalty. The Suffragettes used violet as one of the colours of their flag and it came to stand for the word Vote in their motto, Give Women the Vote.

So, remember that the little shrinking violet is no insignificant flower. Like many a small thing, they can pack a punch. Choose a moist patch in your garden, in dappled shade, and plant yourself a few violets. The sight of these simple little flowers in spring will be something to treasure.


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