Violet

or SWEET VIOLET (Viola odorata) Posies of violets was a fashion actually set by Queen Victoria - over 4000 plants, it is said, were grown under frame at Windsor, to provide the Court with posies for evening wear (Genders. 1971). A bunch of violets is the traditional Mothering Sunday gift (Opie & Opie. 1959). Their scent is fleeting. When first coming upon them, the fragrance is obvious, but it soom seems to go. "To smell the smell out of violets" is a proverbial saying, and there is a factual basis for it, for the fragrance contains ionine, which has a soporific effect upon the sense of smell. This effect was recognised, but misunderstood, when the gift of sleep was ascribed to the violet. One 16th century herbalist (Ascham) said, "for them that may not sleep for a sickness seethe violets in water and at even let him soke well hys temples, and he shall sleepe well by the grace of God". Violets were once used as strewing flowers (Genders. 1971), but the scent is not wholly approved. Towards the end of the 19th century a French scientist named de Parville said that their scent had a harmful effect on the voice, and there is a record that the singer Marie Sass could take no part in a concert after smelling a bunch of Parma violets given to her. Singing teachers still forbid the use of perfume made from them, or flowers that have a similar aroma, like mimosa (Genders. 1972). It is even said that a lot of violets in a room can cause convulsions (Pratt. 1913), and some say that a bunch of violets will attract fleas or other vermin into a house (Vickery. 1993).

The ionine contained in the smell reminds us that ion is the Greek for violet, and that the legend of its origin is, in Lyte's words, "after the name of that sweete girle or pleasant damoselle Io, which Jupiter turned into a trim Heyfer or gallant Cow, because that his wife Iuno (being both an angry or jealous Goddesse) should not suspect that he loved Io. In the honour of which his Io, as also for her more delicate and wholesome feeding, the earth at the commandment of Iupiter brought forth Violets, the which, after the name of well-beloved Io, he called in Greeke Ion". Gerard had this story, too, but another legend says that the Greeks adopted the name Ion after certain nymphs in Ionia had made an offering of the flowers to Jupiter (Browning). A quite different origin myth is that it sprang from the blood of Attis when Cybele changed him into a pine tree.

In the language of flowers, violet's association was with death (Webster), possibly because it was the colour of mourning (Haig), or even perhaps because of its use as a soporific. But it is really thought of as the symbol of humility. As such it would be the emblem of Christ on earth. For the same reason, it was given also as the emblem of confessors (Haig). In addition, it has been taken as a symbol of constancy (Dyer. 1889), and in France, "de la modestie, de la pudeur et de l'innocence" (Rambosson). In Britain, it is the white violet that is the symbol of innocence (Friend. 1883). So highly was it regarded by the ancient Athenians (it was actually in commercial cultivation there for its sweetening properties) that they made it the emblem of their city (Genders. 1971). Closer to our own times, there is yet another association of the violet - that with the Bonaparte dynasty. When Napoleon left France for Elba, he said he would return in the violet season, and violet (both the flower and the colour) became a secret emblem of confederates sympathetic to him. When he escaped from Elba, his friends greeted him with violets. He is referred to as "le père de la violette" in a French soldiers' song:

Chantons le père de la violette,

Au bruit de sons et de canons.

Byron also uses the imagery of the violet in his Napoleon's farewell to France:

The violet grows in the depths of thy valleys,

Though wither'd, thy tears will unfold it again.

Dreaming of violets means "advancement in life" (Dyer. 1889). Another superstition connected with them is that when they and roses bloom in autumn, there will be an epidemic the following year (Dyer. 1889).

In medieval times, violets were grown as a salad herb. It was the flowers that were eaten, raw, with onions and lettuce. Byrne says that the buds were still eaten as a salad in Elizabethan times. They could be cooked, too, with meat and game (Genders. 1971). Wine could be made with them - very popular with the Romans, it seems (Hemphill), and apparently vinegar was also made with them: "Vinegar acquires a very agreeable colour and taste by infusing in it some petals of this odoriferous flower" (Thornton). But it was probably as a confection that it achieved its greatest popularity. Gerard says "there is ... made of Violets and Sugar certaine plates called Sugar violet, Violet tables, or Plate, which is most pleasant and wholesome, especially it comforteth the heart and the inward parts", sold especially in the 17th century as a remedy for weak lungs (Pratt. 1913).

Violets were used quite extensively in medicine, usually the leaves, but the roots (and the seeds) were said to be purgative, and country people use them still as such. Gypsies make a poultice of the leaves steeped in boiling water, for cancerous growths. An infusion of the leaves, they say, will help internal cancers (Vesey-Fitzgerald). This is also found in Welsh folklore (Trevelyan), and as a Dorset herbal cure (Dacombe). It is often used, too, in Russian folk medicine (Kouren-noff). Violet buds eaten in salads were said to be taken for the same purpose (Tongue. 1965). The leaf plaster was used for ulcers too, or boils - there is a recipe from the 15th century for "hot botches", which are described as inflamed boils: "Take violet, and stamp it with honey and vinegar, and make thereof a plaster; and anoint the head [of the botch] in the beginning of its growing with the juice of violet, and then lay on the plaster" (Dawson. 1934). Herbalists are still recommending this leaf plaster to help heal any wound (Fluck). People in Dorset use the leaves to put on stings (Dacombe), and the leaves are often applied to bruises (Pratt. 1913). One of the oddest medical uses of violets must be this one, taken from the Book of Iago ab Dewi - "to ascertain the fate of a sick person, bruise violets and apply them to the eyebrows; if he sleep, he will live, but if not he will die" (Berdoe).

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