Fragrant Violets

I heard a new term the other day: songworm, the tune you can’t get out of your head. Happened just in time; ever since Valentines Day I’ve been hearing Frank Sinatra singing I Bought You Violets For Your Furs.

purple fragrant violets, Viola odorata

A classic bouquet of violets, tightly bound stems, galax leaf frame (no doily, however)

If that sounds more than a little old fashioned, that’s because it is. The song is only in my head because my father used to croon it to my mother and whether he ever bought her any I do not know. They did court in New York City in the late ‘30s, when nosegays of fragrant violets were still a staple of winter romance. But by the time I grew up the whole tradition – along with the violets – was long gone.

Or make that almost gone.

Sweet violets (Viola odorata) grow in my garden; I could force them in winter if I wanted to. And if we were almost anywhere else, I probably would.

But as we are in the mid Hudson Valley, I don’t need to go to the trouble. Just up the road in Rhinebeck there is still a tiny fragment of the now vanished industry that once made the town “The Violet Capital of The World.”

Big claim, possibly not true. But maybe. When violet mania was at its height in the early 20th century, there were over 400 violet houses in the area, bringing close to a million dollars to the local economy (almost 23 million if you adjust for inflation).

The story of this floral rise and fall  is recounted, briefly, in The Violets of Dutchess County, and there is a new documentary about it, Sweet Violets, that I’m beyond eager to see and will try to report on shortly.

Meanwhile, hankering for the real thing, I bought the nosegay in the picture from Battenfeld’s, formerly a major player in the Rhinebeck violet biz. Its greenhouses are now devoted to anemones, with some ranunculus and lilies thrown in to keep things interesting.

sign at battenfelds anemone nursery

They don't mention the violets because there are so very few

The last violets are over against one wall of one greenhouse, in a bed that’s 100 feet long but only one foot wide.

It looks like hell… as it needs to for maximum flower production. All will be restored to health when the cutting season is over.

violets being forced for cutting

Depriving mature violet plants of food and water scares them into producing flowers as a survival strategy. Plants that fear death put maximum energy into blossoms as a last ditch attempt to make seeds.

Come early spring, these unhappy creatures will be divided and moved outdoors for regeneration. By the time they must come in again next fall, they’ll look like these

sweet violets v. odorata leaves and flowers

Violet plants that landed in clover (aka an anemone bed), happily watered and fertilized, responding to their cushy situation by making a ton of leaves and very few flowers.

The plants giving flowers today are directly linked to the past. They’ve been going in and out, divided and divided and divided again for well over 40 years, said the company’s fourth generation owner, Fred Battenfeld, who welcomed us and showed us around  — on of all days February 13th.

I bought only three bunches of violets, which was probably a good thing. There were just two left in stock and he picked the third one as we talked, perhaps not inadvertently illustrating why this labor intensive flower may have trouble making a commercial comeback.

picking sweet violet  v. odorata in greenhouse

The hands of Fred Battenfeld, in front of the last strip of Rhinebeck’s greenhouse violets. (Go visit or get the film to see the rest of him; we didn't bug him for a portrait and the candid ones didn't come out.)

GROWING FRAGRANT VIOLETS

The sweet violet (Viola odorata) likes cool, moist, slightly acid to neutral soil in partial or dappled shade. It’s fairly tough, but not as cold hardy as the common or wild blue violet (V. papilionacia). Most authorities rate it ok to southern zone 6, though mine have been doing fine for years in zone 5b.

What mine are not doing is spreading, though V. odorata is normally willing to multiply freely. That’s probably at least in part because they’re at the end of their range, but I’m sure the intense competition isn’t helping. Unlike the common kind, fragrant violets aren’t particularly pushy.

In my experience, they aren’t particularly fragrant, either, unless your nose is in the immediate neighborhood. Bouquets on a side table waft perfume as far as an adjacent chair and a boutonniere rewards its wearer with a steady, subtle sweetness. But outdoors the scent doesn’t travel far.

Maybe it’s different in England, where V. odorata is a native ground cover frequently praised for warranting its species name. Here I’m thinking the best place for them would be up closer to to the passer-by: on an embankment beside a walkway, or carpeting the surface of a big planter that housed a small tree or vine draped tuteur. Or maybe in a giant pot on a pedestal…

But then the giant pot would probably have to be brought in  for the winter and then there we would be again with things that must be brought in about which I have sworn several vows. Also, if I’ve got to bring it in (to the unheated but brightly sunlit barn, for instance), I think I’ll go whole hog and plant a few Parmas.

GROWING PARMA VIOLETS

The Parmas are the prima donnas, most fragrant, most double, most finicky of scented violets. Although opinions differ on their region of origin and their correct species affinities, everyone seems to be in agreement that they came from someplace warm and were introduced to Europe through Italy, sometime around the 16th century.

They need more or less the same conditions as odoratas, but slightly more fertility and quite a bit less cold. Plan to bring them in if you’re anywhere north of zone 9.

Sources include

Select Seeds and Bluestone Perennials

More on Parma violets: Matt Mattus’s What’s Old is New Again Maybe.

Listen to Frank Sinatra sing I Bought Your Violets For Your Furs

 

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7 Comments »

  • Yang Said,

    Wonderful report! Shared with my violet fancier friends…

    Welcome, Yang, and thanks. Happy to hear there are more violet fanciers out there.

  • Susan Scheid Said,

    I always love looking at that Battenfield’s sign. They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

    They just don’t make ‘em like Battenfelds, period – the sign is the least of it! Be sure to stop if it’s open when you pass; gorgeous flowers in the cooler self-serve and very reasonably priced.

  • Laura Cabot Said,

    Hi Leslie!

    It’s been forever, I hope you are well.

    I got quite a nostalgic lift from that Sinatra song…..makes me yearn for gentler times.

    I’ve always loved violets and their startling hue, the first flower I ever found in the woods as a child. Even then, I loved eating their lovely leaves and blooms in fantasy salads. It’s said that eating violet blossoms gladdens the heart. Your blog post lifted mine.

    Laura Cabot

    Hi Laura, how nice to hear from you!

    Thanks so much for the reminder about violets gladdening the heart. The herbalist in the violet movie talked about their calming properties but didn’t use such poetic language.

  • Leslie,

    Thank you so much for this post. I am from the Hudson Valley, violets are my favorite flower, and I never knew the area’s history with the lovely blossom! I’m now in Portland, OR, and it is much harder to find as many violets as I fancy each year (the native violet is a pretty yellow variety, but no aroma – there are purple & white ones here & there, but they are by no means abundant).
    I candy violets, which is perhaps as tedious as growing them – there are pictures of my candies on my blog, The Farmer’s Feast, that I did for a Forager’s Feast dinner last year (they are pictured in the Rhubarb post).
    I am anxious to grow violets after reading your post – and to see the film & read the book you mention. And next time I’m back in my hometown, I’ll be sure to pay a visit to the farm!

    Hi Kathryn,

    I’m so glad you found the violet post and DO encourage you to try growing them – or maybe getting a local specialty crop farmer to grow them; as the movie makes very clear, you’re right about the tedious! Your candied violets look so delicate, almost more “sugared” than candied. Do you have a special technique or recipe or is it just the usual egg white and superfine?

  • Gary Lincoff Said,

    So here’s a question I can’t answer – what’s the difference, if any, between violets and pansies? In the UK there is something called the wild pansy – but it’s a Viola, as are all violets. Are pansies hybrids, and if so when was the first hybrid grown?

    Hi Gary, it’s a long story. More in part 2, coming soon. Short version is that bedding pansies, the kind sold everywhere in spring, are indeed hybrids: Viola x wittrockiana, created by crossing several species. I’ll have to search a bit to find out the start date – stay tuned!

    update: I didn’t have to search far, good ol’ wikipedia has an extensive, entertaining (and plausibly footnoted) entry on pansies, which by now you’ve probably found, but just in case:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pansy

  • :) It was a pleasure to introduce you to the word. As a philosopher once said: If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, it makes us feel as though our hard work ain’t been in vain for nothin’. Bless you all.

    Heavenly days – I’m speechless (new word notwithstanding). Thanks agin, Scotty, for introducing me to “songworm”

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