The continuing discoveries of a 21st century artist and naturalist …
One of the earliest blooming wildflowers around my home is the violet.
It seems to have always been so since Shakespeare spoke of it being too early in blooming and therefore described it as ‘forward’. It has been called modest for its short bloom cycle and for shying away low in the grass. It was common for poets during the Georgian period to take woodland walks and after one those Leigh Hunt coined the term ‘shrinking violet’ in the poetry magazine The Indicator. The violet does not produces seeds the way other flowers do. Its reproduction through cleistogamy led the Elizabethans to attach a meaning of innocent, unspoiled love but its connection to love goes back to its origins in Greek mythology.
The Greek god Zeus fell in love, as he did frequently, with a young girl which made his wife Hera quite jealous – also a common phenomenon in their ‘relationship’. To protect the girl, Io, from Hera’s anger Zeus changed her into a heifer but felt that grass was not good enough for her to eat. He created the violet for her consumption. From IO the botanical name of Viola was derived. We often associate the flower with the color violet but violet used as a color was first recorded in 1370. The virginal love in Greek mythology and during Elizabethan times seems quite appropriate since the color violet, in spectral analysis, is a true color while the color purple, with which it is often used interchangeably, is a mix of red and blue.
The scent of violets was employed in English funerary rites ostensibly for the same reason as rue and rosemary – that of remembrance. The real reason for tossing these flowers into the grave was to protect ‘the mourners against poisonous exhalations from the cemetery’. This may have come from Greece or Rome as the Greeks concealed the body with violets and placed them on graves. These facts are from a lovely book published in 1911 by Charles M. Skinner – Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits and Plants Other such facts include:
Among the flowers on which the shadow of the cross fell on the day of the crucifixion was the violet, and, like others in that shadow, it drooped in sorrow, thereby tokening its consecration in Christian services. Its color is suggested in the purple of church mourning and the wearing of amethyst jewels by persons in orphanage or widowhood.
Napoleon was known as Corporal Violet because this was his favorite flower, and when sent to Elba he declared that he would return when the violets bloomed…..so there was a wonderful display of violets when he re-entered Tuileries. It was much worn during his reign, and came to be so well known [sic] as his emblem that on the restoration of the Bourbons it was treasonable to wear it in public or even carry it in bouquets.
In Germany it was still a custom, at the time the above book was published, to ‘adorn bridal beds and cradles with it, a practice extending back to the Celts and the Greeks’. In the nineteenth century it was grown and harvested, especially along the French Riviera, for making perfumes.
Not only has the violet been cherished for its sweet aroma but it is eaten as well. The flowers are sugared as well as being used as a garnish for puddings, broths and other dishes. They are purported to be good mixed with lettuce and onions in salads and “a dish known in England as vyolette consisted of the flowers, boiled, pressed and brayed with additions of milk, rice flour, and honey.”
Victorians, in their fondness for associating meanings with different flowers, attached to it the characteristic of faithfulness. Perhaps that is one reason it has been widely used in literature although under various aliases. Examples of other names are “Heart’s Ease” (Robert Herrick’s poem ‘How Pansies and Heart’s Ease Came First’), Love-in-Idleness (Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’), and Pansy (William Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’. There are likely more literary references under its real name – Ophelia in ‘Hamlet’, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘On a Faded Violet’, Sir Walter Scott’s verse ‘The Violet (The Fairest Flower), and William Wordsworth’s ‘Lucy’.
I’m certain there are many more references and descriptions of it in literature. If you have some to add please note them in “Leave A Reply” with them at the bottom of this page.
So we are familiar with violet as a color and associate it with the flower of the same name. But not all violets are ‘painted’ by nature in that hue. Below are violets – some more ‘violet’ than others. (William Cullen Bryant knew this as he wrote a poem titled “The Yellow Violet”.)