Dance of the Violets
by Karyn Siegel-Maier
"That which above all others yields the sweetest smell in the air, is the violet..."
- Francis Bacon
As a distinguished member of the Violaceae family, the violet (Viola spp.) shares its roots with few relatives. In fact, its only cousins are pansies and garden violas. While the genus Viola numbers more than 500 in species, the number of hybrid varieties probably outnumber the pure ones. Much loved by various cultures throughout the world, the essential violet, Viola odorata, has been widely cultivated for more than 2,000 years.
This highly aromatic and ornamental herb has enjoyed a long association with romance, fertility, and occasions for joyous celebration. The Romans welcomed the arrival of spring by scattering violet petals and leaves in banquet halls and with the partaking of Violetum, a sweet wine formulated by the gourmet Apicius.
The ancient Greeks made the violet the official symbol of Athens. Legend has it that Zeus protected his lover, the goddess Io, from the jealous Hera by turning his love into a heifer and allowing her to graze unseen upon a meadow of sweet violets.
In 13th century France, troubadours were bestowed with great cascades of violets in appreciation of their poetic achievements. Napole`on Bonaparte made the violet his "signature flower." It became the emblem of his political party, and a symbol of everlasting love between he and his first wife, Josephine. Josephine reputedly honored her husband by scattering violet petals on his final resting place.
Medicinally, the violet has been employed to remedy a variety of ailments. The Romans believed wearing a band of violets about the head would ensure sobriety during festivals and would deter "morning after" unpleasantness. (One wonders if this prevention arose out of necessity from the habitual imbibing of too much violet wine!) Preparations formulated from violets to ease hangover pangs are still popular in France today. Pliny recommended violet water for gout and spleen disorders. The leaves and flowers are reputed to have an expectorant quality and "Violet Plate," a violet sugar or conserve, was a popular ingredient in 17th century throat lozenges and cough syrups. For centuries, violets have been used to treat fever and headache, and in China today to treat abscesses and as a poultice for inflammation. The results were likely effective since the plant contains an aspirin-like substance known as methyl salicylate. The flowers are still used today to tint certain medications.
Victorian nosegays and "strewing" potpourri of the 18th century usually included violets due to their soporific effect. Although fresh violets are highly fragrant when first cut, their very scent, as well as undesirable odors that may be present at the time, become less noticeable very quickly. Shakespeare's Laertes made reference to this mysterious quality when he said: "A violet in the youth of primy nature, Forward, not permanent; sweet, not lasting. The perfume and suppliance of a minute. No more." Great quantities of the sweet violets are commercially grown in France and Italy today for the perfume industry. It takes more than 2 million flowers to produce a single pound of the essential oil!
A low-growing perennial reaching approximately 4 inches in height, the violet is particularly suitable for rock gardens, banks, as a border for ponds or anywhere groundcover is desired. It will prosper if given a moist, rich bed of soil of between 7 and 8 pH and plenty of sun, although most varieties will tolerate partial shade. Violets can be easily transplanted to your garden from the wild as long as you are able to duplicate the conditions in which it was found. Since violets grow on runners, they will spread rapidly each year and may need thinning out. Also, the flower heads will burst forth with more frequency if excess runners are trimmed.
The violet is quite agreeable to propagation by seed or root division, but the easiest method is to clip the off-shoots in early spring and root them in soil at least 1 foot apart. Some species can be grown from seed sown in outdoor frames in early autumn, the seeds of which need to experience freezing temperatures before they will germinate. However, the frames should be covered with burlap until germination occurs, usually within 10 to 20 days. Cover the frames with mulch to protect the young plants from winter's chill.
The flowers of different species of violets range in color, but most frequently they are deep purple, blue, white, or pink. The pansy, or V. Triclor is one of the more popular hybrids due to its particularly beautiful flowers. Several species are native to North America, such as V. Blanda and V. Lanceolata, both of which are aromatic and thrive in swampy conditions. V. Pedata is prized for it's large flowers which reminds one of a bird's foot. This species produces flowers of every conceivable color. Other popular species are V. Palmata, which makes an early entrance in late winter; V. sagittata, the leaves of which grow to an unusually large size after flowering; and V. rostrata, which enjoys a moist, rocky environment. V. pubescens produces large pale green foliage and the flowers of V. rotundifolia are an exquisite yellow. The Canadian violet, V. Canadensis, is an unusually tall species that yields white star-shaped flowers. Most violets have slightly toothed leaves of varying degree and shape which is probably why what is commonly called the dog-tooth violet is often mistaken as a relative. The association ends with the common name since the dog-tooth violet, or Erythronium denscanis, is actually a member of the Liliaceae family. Similarly, although several species of violets are to be found in Africa, the African violet (Saintpaulia ionantha) is not related to the true violet.
Violets may be somewhat inconspicuous singularly, but will very soon take over whatever space is afforded to them and they will continue to delight you with sprays of color for many seasons. There is another reason to celebrate the appearance of violets other than the arrival of another growing season, and for the same reason you'll want to have an abundance of flower heads available. They're great fun to prepare and serve in salads, jams, soups, puddings or even as the old fashioned crystallized treat. Bon Appetite!
This is a simple but elegant dessert, or you can serve it at brunch. It's equally good warm or chilled. It's especially attractive because the violets float to the top!
3/4 cup violet petals
3 large eggs
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
3 cups milk
1 tsp. Vanilla
Divide the violet petals between 8 individual ramekins. Beat together the eggs, yolks, and sugar. Blend in the milk, vanilla, and sugar. Divide the custard among the ramekins and place them into a large baking dish. Add enough boiling water to the large baking dish to reach the halfway point on the ramekins. Place the baking dish with ramekins in the oven, lower the temperature to 325' F, and bake for 45-50 minutes. The custard is done when a knife inserted in the center comes out almost clean.