Re-Thinking Scented Violets – Growing With Plants

An old print of women harvesting violets in the south of France. (Harvard Papers in Botany, Vol 18 No. 2)

   Great confustion exists not only amongst us gardeners about what is and what isn’t a scented violet, but also with botanists. Luckly, with recient DNA sequencing the problem seems to have been solved. Yet while we those of us who care about such things will change what we write about and perhaps grow, plan on continuing to see lots confusing and incorrect information about Scented violets both in written media and on social media. Then, of course, there are those countless posts that confuse the African Violet with true viola species. I won’t address that confusion here, as most of us know the differences (they are a completely different plant, not even the same genus or plant family).

In a nutshell, here’s the top-line. There are 300 plus species of viola (pansies and florist violas included), and perhaps thousands of varieties (those different types either hybridized or named as selections by humans) out in the world today. Setting all aside except those few violas or violets that have scent, we are left with a handful of species to look remarkably alike but are very different.

Old 19th century books on violet cultivation often show how to harvest and pack cut violets for shipping via train to nearby cities.

The common violets many of in North America have in our gardens (often as a self-seeding pest) is Viola scoria. You will see this everywhere on-line, from decorating cakes on Pinterest boards to bouquets and tinctures. While edible, it isn’t exactly the violet that was once candied by the French for such use, and it isn’t even fragrant. That would be the Parma Violet, which we now know is properly classified by taxonomists as any number of named selections of a tender Mediterranean species Viola alba ssp. dehnhardtii.

Sweet Violet, or Viola odorata isn’t the same as Parma Violet, but it is sometimes grown to produce the fragrant volatile oils (found in weaker quantities). Parma Violets are now known to be a different species, Viola alba. A Mediterranean native that is tender in most cold gardens where they is snow in winter.

Confusion starts here.

You will see Viola alba everywhere on a Google search, but rarely are the photos or plants the correct species. More often than not writers of some blogs or media posts assume that any white violet in their garden is Viola alba. The true species is more rare in culture, and is tender, doesn’t produce seed and doesn’t spread.

To make matters worse, if you have violets that smell pretty in your garden (in North America or in Europe and the UK) it’s probably the Sweet Violet or Viola odorata. This species looks nearly identical to Viola scoria and other violet species, but it has a strong scent. It also sets seeds and is promiscuous so many color forms exist and some are very lovely in the garden. But it isn’t the same species not plant as those grown by the great violet craze growers in the 19th century, not the same violets that Queen Victoria kept at her bedside nor the same ones grown for the fragrance industry, perfumery, the food industry in candy and extracts, in liquor or candied as candied violets.

I only mention this as you will see many posts out there on how to use your garden violets in any of those above ways. On cakes fresh or even perhaps dipped in egg white and sugar and used on bake goods, you may not be disappointed, but again, not the same thing. Ive even seen some social media posts on using V. scoria or V. odorata in making liquor, flavoring syrups and such, but the results must be disappointing as the rare compound found in V. alba the Parma violet strains is missing – the mysterious Ionone. Once the only source of this fragrant volatile essential oil, now sytheticaly created (since 1910 when it virtually killed the Parma violet trade), and not found in high enough quantities in any other violet.

African violets used in a funeral wreath featured on a site of a florist. Obviously, these are not ‘violets’ or viola species to those who know the difference, they are of the genus Saintpaulia, but not true violets.
The true Parma violet is double and intensely fragrant like no other flower.

I continue to be enchanted with what was once a world full of Parma violets, but I suppose those days are far in the past. But why then do I still have such a fascination with them? I suppose its just like living history. To be able to smell something from 1830 is magical, and to be able to grow what once captivated so many is special today.

True Parma Violets (V. alba) have long stems and double flowers with a deep, intoxicating fragrance.

Parma violets where once so fashionable, at great balls in Paris, at the opera, their sweet perfume must have wafted through the streets amidst coal fumes and vomit. No wonder people loved them. Nearly every western country grew scented violets in the mid-1800s, Russia, France, England, Australia and the US. Near the end of the 19th century diseases began to kill of many of the most treasured strains making flowers hard to come by. Growers learned to extract the necessary chemicals from the leaves of the plants, something that continues today in Grasse France where most cultivars just don’t produce the flowers that the old varieties once did. In fact many farmers have switched to growing V. odorata ‘Victoria’ or ‘The Czar’ instead as it produced more robust plants with half of the chemistry needed, but more plants can be grown. Who cares if the flowers themselves are not as exciting, for only the leaves are needed.

The finest Parma violets had long stems that were strong and intense fragrance with double flowers. Growers often grew them in pots, even in the UK and in the US estates kept hundred of pots in cold frames just for picking. Some old cultivars were said to be able to price 600 -1000 flowers a week. This all came to an end just after the first World War and the 1920s when the violet simply fell out of fashion. What was once the flower for Christmas, Valentines Day or any spring social event, died away and along with it did many of the varieties and growers.

I grow many selections of the Sweet Violet or Viola odorata but while close, they just don’t have the same charm as the Parma Violet. A good close second, though and a bit easier to come by. They need cool to cold conditions to vernalize, then brought into a cool greenhouse to bloom in mid February.

There is a bit of a resurgence in interest, though. Liquor manufacturers are rediscovering violet liquors now being produced again for posh vintage cocktails such as the Aviator, and the perfume industry continues on (violets are said to be used by Chanel in Chanel No. 5) and in the south of France festivals abound in February in towns and villages that still grow violets for the few uses in food, drink and fashion.

Now, my goal is to acquire as many of the vintage varieties again, and grow them, photographing them for a new book concept, and learning the classic cultural techniques for cultivation. I’ve been lucky enough to find two classic vintage books from the early 1900’s on growing scented Parma violets commercially in England, and a book from America from the late 1800s’, as well as finding a source for some plants. Since they have to be ordered in May, this was perfect timing.

Violet scented everything existed a hundred years ago.

Even though I have a few Parma violets growing now in the greenhouse, I will be adding five other named French varieties, and hopefully propagating them for some cut flowers this winter. I find that the idea of recreating a lost cultural tradition such as the presentation of a nosegay of cut parma violets, fascinatingly charming, and exactly the direction that modern gardening should turn to. If one wishes to discover something new and meaningful about plants that others forgot about. Living antiques. Let’s see this autumn, when they start blooming, if I can recreate the success that the French have had, and regardless, I am planning a trip to the Violet festival in Toulouse and Grasse next February. After all – that’s mimosa season too (the flower, not the drink!).

There is much more to be shared about scented violets and Parma Violets, but I’ll spare you all and save that for a future book. There were once dozens of fine, named varieties, most are lost but out a dozen are available occasionally, but are still difficult to find.

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