Viola odorata (the Sweet Violet) has been known to Man for a very long time. A manuscript of AD 904 written in Persia (translated from the older Aramaic) explained the cultivation of violets.
According to the Woodland Trust, this violet is becoming increasingly uncommon. Viola riviniana (the common dog violet) is almost identical to the sweet violet in appearance, but cannot be confused with Viola odorata as it has no scent at all. The Sweet Violet has quite an illustrious history! From the Ancient Greeks who quaffed wine scented with violets to the late 18th century’s popularity in Britain , this shade-loving perennial with tiny flowers certainly knew how win over hearts and noses.
Plutarch wrote that in Italy gardeners of the 1st century AD planted sweet violets amongst garlic and onions so that the vegetables’ flavour might be improved. However, I suspect that this might well be the first documented case of companion planting. Perhaps the violets’ scent put off pests such as the onion root fly? Interestingly, while doing my research on violets I found a modern day recipe of ‘Spicy violet pearls’:
Combine lemon juice, cayenne pepper, garlic purée and violet syrup and carefully place droplets of this mixture onto white gladiolus petals.
In Syria and Turkey violets are used as an ingredient in making sherbet.
It is Viola odorata that was beloved by Napoleon. On their anniversary Napoleon would gift to Josephine bunches of violets. Having been banished to Elba it is reported that Napoleon said, “I will return with the violets in Spring”.
Violets were Queen Alexandra’s favourite flowers. In the gardens at Windsor as many as 5,000 violets were grown (cultivated in frames). Presumably these were the less hardy Parma violets. In the late 1800s Parma violets were very popular. Ladies of country houses wore them as buttonholes while out hunting. One Irish grower grew 7000 blooms from just a quarter of an acre!
A postcard from the end of the 19th century shows violets being harvested in the olive groves of the Côte d’Azur.
Violets were grown in fields in Devon and in the late 1800s flower trains bought masses of violets from Dawlish to London Paddington. These were then taken to Covent Garden to the flower girls who made up the violets into nosegays or buttonholes and then sold them from their baskets.
Viola odorata flowers were also used in perfumery. Arab perfumers perfected a technique for distilling the oil. In the late 1800s the chemists Tiemann, Kruger and Semmler discovered a way to separate the aroma compounds (known as ionones) in violets. It is likely today that any violet scent found in items is synthetic. Ionones were produced in Haarmann’s factory on an industrial scale along with vanillin.
Violets can be used to flavour ice cream, sorbet, sweets and cakes. In Britain the Derbyshire firm of Swizzels makes Parma violet sweets. The firm has been making them since 1928.
Found growing at the edges of woodlands, in early spring the violet’s flowers provide nectar for butterflies. If you want to pick violets for your own pressing, then make sure that there are plenty of plants where you’d like to pick them and pick sparingly so that others can enjoy their delightful prettiness and exquisite scent.