Fragrant Plant in Garden Literature-Violets by Eleanor Sinclair Rodhe

The Scented Garden-Eleanor Sinclair Rodhe

Images of Violets

YOUNG MAN in green, with a Garland of
Mirtle, and Hawthorn Buds, Winged, in one hand
Primroses and Violets, in the other the sign Taurus.' So
run the instructions in a seventeenth-century book for
embroidering a figure representing Spring.

Violets are the spring's chiefe flowers for beauty,
smell and use.' The sweet-scented violet {Viola odorata)
is a native not only of Europe, but also of Persia, Palestine,
Barbary, Arabia, Japan and China. In the East as in the
West it has been beloved from time immemorial. Violets
preserve in their scent the memory of Orpheus, for one
day, being weary, he sank to sleep on a mossy bank, and
where his enchanted lute fell, there blossomed the first
violet. The magic music of his lute still haunts the
scent of violets. Deep-toned melodies from faerie
linger in
'the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour.*

The violet is regal in its humility, and what a splendour
of purple radiates from the petals of this shy flower. It
glows with the fragrance and warmth of its beauty.
* And the more vertuous the flower thereof is the more
it bendeth the head thereof downward. The lyttlenesse
thereof in substance is nobly rewarded in greatnesse of
savour and vertue.' And to violets the old herbalists
ascribed the gift of sleep. ' For them that may not sleep
for sickness, seethe the violets in water and at even let
him soke well hys f eete in the water to the ancles ; when
he goeth to bed bind of this herb to his temples and he
shall slepe well by the grace of God.' We are all familiar
with the curious effect produced by smelling violets.
The keen delicious perfume in a few seconds becomes
fainter and similar to that of a mossy bank and in another
moment the scent has apparently vanished. But the
violets are of course still full of fragrance and it is our
sense of smell which is exhausted, not the perfume of
the violets. The dominant note in their scent is ionone,
which has a tiring, almost soporific effect on the sense of
smell. Shakespeare refers to the fleeting nature of the
pleasure given by this exquisite scent :

* Sweet, not lasting
The perfume and suppliance of a minute.'

Garden varieties of the sweet-scented violet have a
richer scent, but they have not the exquisitely keen, pure,
almost rarefied scent of wild violets. As a child one
thought that the white violet was even more sweetly
scented than the purple, and the first time one read the
immortal essay ' Of Gardens ' it came as a pleasant sur-
prise to find one's childish belief confirmed by no less a
personage than the great Francis Bacon. ' That which
above all yields the sweetest smell in the air is the Violet,
especially the white double violet which comes twice a
year, about the middle of April and about Bartholomew-
tide.'

I love Henry Vaughan's lines about violets :

As harmless violets, which give
Their virtues here
For salves and syrups while they live,
Do after calmly disappear,
And neither grieve, repine, nor fear :

So dye his servants ; and as sure
Shall they revive.
Then let not dust your eyes obscure,
But lift them up, where still alive,
Though fled from you, their spirits hive.'

The violet is the symbol of humility. Over thirteen
centuries ago the bishop-poet Fortunatus sent to Queen
Radegonde of saintly fame violets and other scented
flowers, and with his gift he wrote, * He who offers
violets must in love be held to offer roses. Of all the
fragrant herbs I send none can compare in nobleness
with the purple violet. They shine in royal purple : per-
fume and beauty unite in their petals. May you show
forth in your life what they represent.' In Giovanni di
Paolo's paradise the redeemed wander in meadows
blossoming with the violets of humility and the lilies of
purity. In the Adorations by the great masters, notably
Botticelli, the violet symbolizes above all the humility
of the Son of God, Who came to this earth as a little
Child. In like manner the jasmine flowers tell us of
the starry Heavens He left, and roses of the Divine
love which sent Him to this earth. In an altar-piece
by Lochner the Holy Child seated on His Mother's lap
stretches up to take a violet held by her. In Signorelli's
Madonna, in the Cathedral of Perugia, transparent vases
of jasmine, roses and violets are depicted, the roses
denoting Divine love, the violets His humility, and the
jasmine the starry heavens He had left to come to this
earth. In the beautiful Adoration of the Shepherds, by-
Hugo van der Goes, in the Uffizi Gallery, purple and white
violets are in the centre of the foreground with lilies,
columbines, carnations, and blue and white irises. The
Infant Christ, bathed in light emanating from Himself,
lies on the ground, beside Him kneels His Mother,
around them are angels with jewelled circlets on their
brows, to the right adoring shepherds and on the left St.
Joseph. Between the Infant Child and the flowers lies a
sheaf of corn, symbolising the Bread of Heaven. The irises
denote His royal birth, the carnations His divine love in
coming to this earth, the columbines the seven gifts of the
Holy Spirit, and the violets His humility.

No one has written more beautifully of the effect pro-
duced on the mind by violets than old Gerard : ' March
Violets of the Garden have a great prerogative above
others, not only because the mind conceiveth a certaine
pleasure and recreation by smelling and handling of those
most odoriferous Flowers, but also for that very many by
these Violets receive ornament and comely grace : for
there bee made of them Garlands for the head, Nosegaies
and posies which are delightfull to looke on and pleasant
to smell to, speaking nothing of their appropriate ver-
tues ; yea Gardens themselves receive by these the
greatest ornament of all, chiefest beautie and most
gallant grace ; and the recreation of the minde which is
taken hereby, cannot be but very good and honest : for
they admonish and stir up a man to that which is comely
and honest ; for floures through their beautie, varietie
of colour, and exquisite forme, doe bring to a liberall and
gentlemanly minde the remembrance of honestie, come-
liness, and all kinds of vertues. For it would be an
unseemly thing for him that doth looke upon and handle
faire and beautifull things, and who frequenteth and is
conversant in faire and beautifull places, to have his
minde not faire.'

Our great-grandmothers not only candied violets as we
do, but they made various confections scented with
violets, chiefly violet syrup and violet tablet. Violet
syrup was made by macerating two pounds of fresh violets
in five pints of distilled water for 24 hours. Then the
liquor was strained off, sugar added (allowing a pound of
sugar to each pint of liquor) and then boiled to a syrup.
Violet tablets were made by steeping violets in lemon
juice, adding sugar in the same proportion as above, and
then boiling till when cold it set firm. They also used to
eat young violet leaves fried and served with slices of
lemons and oranges. No less an authority than John
Evelyn describes this as ' one of the most agreeable of all
the herbaceous dishes.'

Pansies and violas, which are so nearly related to
violets, have, with few exceptions, little scent when smelt
singly, but a cluster of either gives out a sweet though
faint perfume. The soft mauve-blue Maggie Mott is
fragrant, and Mrs. E. A. Cade, which is quite the earliest
of the rayless yellow violas, is very fragrant. It flowers at
least a fortnight earlier than the other rayless yellows,
and does well again in early autumn. There are probably
few plants with so many curious old country names as
pansies, — Heart's-ease, Love-in-idleness, Herb Trinity,
Three- Faces-under - a - Hood, Jump - up - and - Kiss - me,

Pink - of - my - John, and Call - me - to - you. Pansies are
amongst our oldest favourites in the garden, and our
Anglo-Saxon ancestors called the flower * bone-wort.' We
do not know for how many centuries the flower has been
associated in fairy lore with the magical qualities which

Oberon ascribed to
'the little western flower
Before milk-white, now purple with love's wound,
And maidens call it love-in-idleness.'