I have seen so many violets this year, and I’ve seen them everywhere, not just shyly peeping in woodland but out in the open cheerfully looking up at the sunny weather we’ve been having. I associate them with my childhood and walking in the countryside, , ad maybe I no longer have a day job and go out and about I am seeing them more frequently, or maybe they are becoming less rare… or maybe they never were rare but I just didn’t see any? Their perfume is described as a flirty scent as it’s not always detectable, maybe violets themselves are flirty flowers?
Violets are part of the viola family, I discovered – I didn’t realise that pansies, violas and violets are all cousins. Although violets in their different varieties are found all across the Northern hemisphere, there are varieties which are found all across the world, the famous plantsman, Joseph Banks discovered some in Australia on his trip with Captain Cook – they were named viola banskii – obviously!
Thinking about shy violets, as they sometimes seem, in grassy banks and beneath trees, made me think of the term shrinking violet – there’s no mystery about its origin, it was coined as a description of a shy person, by Leigh Hunt the writer, poet and intellectual associate of Hazlitt and Lamb.
Going back to flirty violets with their elusive scent, out in the wild you have to get down on your hands and knees to smell them – how annoying that would be if they decided to be flirty as you prostrated yourself! As lovely as the little flowers are, I don’t like the synthetic smell of violets, and I dislike even more the flavour. There are sweets called Parma Violets, little purple discs which are definitely a love or hate thing – in fact I don’t know anyone who likes them but you can still buy them. They’re made by Swizzels Matlow, of New Mills in Derbyshire; they seem like sweets from a distant age, but in fact they were first made in 1946 – however, using violets as sweets or pastilles is a very old practice and they were supposed to be a breath-sweetener. I think I remember candied or crystallised violets, little sugary petals of the flower – were they real or artificial? I don’t remember that, but the most famous are apparently the Violettes de Toulouse. Violets are used as flavouring in many things, including liqueurs such as Creme de Violette, and Parfait d’Amour.
There are four towns named Violet in the USA, in Louisiana, Missouri, Texas and West Virginia, and a number of well-known women called Violet, real and fictional – maybe the one a most often think of is the little monster, Violet Elizabeth Bott in the William books by Richmal Crompton.
Lastly, one of my earliest memories, and I’ve mentioned it here before, was of an old lady, a very old lady, who used to sit with a basket of violets – and maybe other wild flowers, selling them in Petty Curry in Cambridge. She was a bundle of old clothes, a strange old soul, and she would call out ‘vi’lets,.. lovely vi’lets!’
Light up the sky, shy violet angel eyes…