They feature in a well-known rhyme popular with children and lovers, have been sung about by Elvis, and were sold by Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Violets are a much loved spring flower with a long history of cultivation and cultural importance.
The violet’s popularity as a cultivated flower dates back, at least, to ancient Greece. The flower became the emblem of Athens, and was a common sight at weddings in the city. Violets have appeared in stories and myths throughout history. According to Greek mythology, the goddess Persephone was gathering spring flowers, including violets, when she was abducted and taken to the underworld by Hades. Napoleon told friends that he would return to Paris from exile on the island of Elba when the violets appeared in the spring. And Christian legends tell of violets growing on the graves of saints. Which is maybe why the flower has become associated with death and mourning in European folktales.
For most gardeners, the violet is a welcome sign that spring is on its way. Its small purple flower and heart shaped leaves look pretty in hedgerows and woodland plantings. Plant breeders have produced violets with slightly larger flowers and longer stems, extending the plant’s appeal. But it’s the fragrance of this modest little flower that perhaps draws people to it most of all.
At the beginning of the 20th century the violet was at the centre of a thriving cut flower trade based on the south Devon Coast. Acres of land around the town of Dawlish were planted with violets, often on smallholdings, in gardens and orchards. At first the flowers were sold locally providing an income through the late winter and spring. But before long corsages and sprays of violets became popular with ladies in London, and boxes of cut blooms were sent up to the market in Covent Garden. The flower had royal approval too. Queen Mary loved violets, and Devonshire blooms were sent as a gift on her birthday. Demand rose to the point where freshly picked violets were being sent to the capital by express train on a daily basis. Imagine standing on the platform as the gentle fragrance of the flowers was carried across the station on a spring breeze.
During the First World War there was some friction between the violet growers, who were getting a good price for their flowers, and those who felt the land could be better used by growing potatoes. Fortunately for flower lovers, and the growers, many plants survived the war without being dug up, and their popularity continued into the 1920s and 30s. The Second World War and the Dig for Victory campaign meant that the land used for violet cultivation was requisitioned for food production, and the trade has never regained its pre-war heights. The global trade in cut flowers which developed as air and road transport became more efficient and cost effective, saw off much of what remained of the British cut flower industry. But who knows, with renewed interest in locally grown, seasonal flowers, the violet may yet see a resurgence in interest and trains from Devon might once again carry these scented blooms to the ladies (and gentlemen) of London.