Updated: May 10
I had a very strange day last week, strange even within the upside-down context of this past year. In a sniping, icy wind that scoured the street sending people hurrying, I needed coffee. Bent to the wind I turned a corner, warmer instantly in a sheltered cobbled lane of mostly little shops. Softer air billowed and buffed, sunshine bouncing off old stone; I scented the soft air, inhaled again, a heavenly fragrance engulfed my senses and I fell headlong into memories, down and down and far far back to childhood.
Pillows and waves of sherbet pink and sweet heady violet overpowered me, a smell, a remembered fragrance from those heady days of long-lost childhood; sixpence to spend at the local shops, hot sun, a summer’s day, heat reflecting off the pavements echoing as we ran, the sweet shop’s siren call, throwing out its fruity sugary smells to catch and pull us in.
In that freezing sunny moment, caught in a dazzle of warm sunbeams, I travelled back, dissolved in a sugary fragrance down between the pavement slabs, transported in a heartbeat to that other time that suddenly was so real. Feeling joyful, laughing at myself, I found the shop as I was meant to do, and bought some sweets, just to keep the moment.
Strawberry sherbets and Parma violets, tiny sugar crusted sweets tucked in little paper packets; “they match your skirt” the shop owner said, my happy mood infectious.
Driving on across the moors, my happy thoughts expanded; mind shot through with pinks and mauves, a whirl of flowers, dreams and memories. We forget so much that we know.
Violets can be such special and significant little plants for us all, though we may not always notice them. They are dainty little flowers; perky elfin shaped florets hide shyly behind large heart shaped sheltering leaves, a hidden world for delicate folk growing so close to the woodland floor and yet they’re strong, resilient little harbingers of spring. Snow may settle amongst their green umbrellas, slipping to shroud their tiny faces in an icy clasp but with the thaw they smile again, impish faces turned to feel the sun.
The Wild Violet by Hannah Flagg Gould
Violet, violet, sparkling with dew, Down in the meadow-land wild where you grew, How did you come by the beautiful blue With which your soft petals unfold? And how do you hold up your tender, young head When rude, sweeping winds rush along o’er your bed, And dark, gloomy clouds ranging over you shed Their waters so heavy and cold?
No one has nursed you, or watched you an hour, Or found you a place in the garden or bower; And they cannot yield me so lovely a flower, As here I have found at my feet! Speak, my sweet violet! answer and tell How you have grown up and flourished so well, And look so contented where lowly you dwell, And we thus by accident meet!
‘The same careful hand,’ the Violet said, ‘That holds up the firmament, holds up my head! And He, who with azure the skies overspread, Has painted the violet blue. He sprinkles the stars out above me by night, And sends down the sunbeams at morning with light To make my new coronet sparkling and bright, When formed of a drop of his dew!
‘I’ve nought to fear from the black, heavy cloud, Or the breath of the tempest that comes strong and loud! Where, born in the lowland, and far from the crowd, I know, and I live but for ONE. He soon forms a mantle about me to cast, Of long, silken grass, till the rain and the blast. And all that seemed threatening have harmlessly passed, As the clouds scud before the warm sun!’
During the Middle Ages Monks had another name for Violets, calling them ‘an Herb of the Trinity’ because they may be found in three primary colours, white, yellow and mauve/blue. There are over 500 species growing around the world.
In the language of colour, violet represents the future, new beginnings, our wisdom and ambitions. This is so relevant to us all just now; as the country begins its journey out of lock down, these small plants are coming up all across the countryside, one of the very first little flowers of spring. Their dainty aromatic flowers remind us that it is part of the natural cycle of life to grow back, to return with renewed energy after a long period of dormancy.
In folklore Violets signal a period of growth, of release.
Violets have an elusive faerie quality, darkly delicate. They are believed to stimulate the imagination and encourage high ideals. I want to shout this out aloud right now – “let’s go and find a little patch and think about these things” Our ancestors believed these plants to be flowers of change, transition, and a symbol of the cycle of death-and-rebirth.
The colour violet has been used by man since very early in our human history. It was often produced by grinding manganese and mixing it with other components. The Egyptians used mulberries, and the Romans crushed and extracted the juice of the blueberry to create their favourite rich purple colour. Irrespective of which of these processes was used, violet was always a relatively expensive colour to make, which is how it became associated with leaders, nobles, clergy and the wealthy. This association became diluted a little during the Renaissance, when violet was also worn by the professors and teachers of the time. We can see from this ancient and more modern history that the colour violet resonates, even perhaps if on an unconscious level, with leadership, prosperity, power, spiritual awareness, confidence and mental acuity.
It is interesting to note that in the same way that the Violet flower hides behind its leaves, the colour Violet is the most difficult for the human eye to distinguish. Psychologically it seems men prefer the darker purplish tones, while women find the lighter shades appealing. We all find it hard to describe that beautiful colour we are seeing.
Today we may turn to the violet to ease emotional stresses and sorrows, holding a piece of amethyst crystal in our hands may promote similarly soothing, calming and strengthening feelings. In Victorian times, in the Language of Flowers the violet was a symbol of constancy. In the Middle Ages, the violet represented love that was new, uncertain, changeable or transitory.
Path of Violets by CA Guilfoyle
In sunshine or in shadow how rich the loamy soil light of earth, dream of rebirth greening lilac buds and bluebells ring magenta hills, aubretia spring of burning fire A mossy path of violets, soft my feet to wander muscari blue the garden dew birds to drink of leafy puddles bluest skies go grey, drifts so swift a rain cloud by to water quick the daffodil, silk umbrellas yellow and comes alas the greening grass robins hopping, weaving Spring unfurls in flowery births tiny violets upon the earth
Historically healers used violets for patients suffering from mouth and throat sores and also cancers. This particular application dates back to ancient Greece. They also used violets in bathes and washes to soothe and nourish irritated skin. As an essential oil it appears in remedies for headaches, insomnia and anxiety but is one of the more expensive essential oils. Monks in the Middle Ages also used to call violets by the folk name of ‘heartsease’ because it was a valuable herb used by healers who kept it in their collections for ‘disorders of the heart’.
A decoction made from violets is said to help soothe fevers and headaches, especially those resulting from colds. As it has a sweet and pleasant taste, it makes it all the easier to take as a medicine!
Violet contains natural anti-inflammatory properties and an ointment made with the oil, applied to swelling, helps reduce inflammation. It also eases the soreness of cracked skin, allowing moisturising creams to be applied.
Violet is a wonderful botanical, extracts are frequently used in natural skincare products, such as for a skin brightening cream or for its anti-inflammatory properties. Violet oil is used in a wide variety of high-end perfumes and most traditionally in French soaps.
The Romans used to make violet wine, and strewed the flowers on floors along with rushes to make their rooms smell sweet. Queen Victoria loved violet tea, taken with honey and it was common practice to make a syrup with them, or to preserve the flowers in sugar as we still do today.
The violet is strongly associated with Emperor Bonaparte. While in exile on the island of Elba, he is said to have confided to his close friends that he would return to France when the violets came into flower in the spring. Violets were very special to Napoleon. Because he loved the flower so much, he chose it to cover Josephine’s grave on her death in 1814 and subsequently wore a locket made from the flowers picked from her grave. His partisans rallied around the symbol of his triumphant return and secretly referred to him as Corporal Violet. To determine a loyal supporter, the question was asked of a stranger: – “Do you like violets”? Bonaparte’s legacy lives on and the French still use the violet as an emblem.
In the late 1800s it is recorded that the French were harvesting more than 6 tons of violet flowers a year to keep up with all the various culinary, medicinal and perfumery demands on their use.
Dreaming of violets is very lucky, as is wearing the flowers pinned to your clothes...but you must only wear them outdoors. Take them off at your doorstep and leave them for the faeries, together with a little bowl of fresh milk to keep them happy.
There is a lot of folklore and magic associated with violets. The new violet leaf is said to offer protection from evil, a defence against the devil. Our ancestors would sew a leaf into a pillow or a little sachet to protect a new baby, or a loved one thought to be in peril. If you make a little posy and carry the petals with you, they will bring luck and enhance night time magic. Newly married couples kept bunches of violets tucked in their beds to bring harmony and good luck and they have always been associated with the Goddess Venus.
In Native American tradition, there is a legend that tells how a violet is a child, born of earth and sky, therefore a symbol of harmony, balance and opportunity. It is really interesting that strikingly similar symbolism is found in early Christian traditions, where the violet is often viewed as a symbol of Jesus and compared with Christ’s ability to be an intermediary, to live in balance between heaven and earth.
A lovely myth tells us that violets first sprang where Orpheus laid his enchanted lute.
Legend says a person can only smell sweet violets once, as they steal your sense of smell. The scent is universally loved but hard to describe, not just because it is so exquisite and elusive, but because it contains ionine, a chemical that temporarily desensitises the sense of smell. This means that just as you take in the first delightful fragrance, your nose stops working, as the chemical shuts down the smell receptors.
Perhaps that’s another reason why violets are preserved in sugar and their fragrance, when we do catch it, moves us so much.
This tiny plant has so much to show and to teach us. It took me back to days long lost, yet showed the way to a rich new beginning, at the same time linking us to all our pasts, our ancestors, all that has gone before and all that is yet to come. It is bright, exciting and constant.