I tend to become obsessive about plants that are either new to me or new to culture,often spending hours researching on-line or in books, lost a complex but delightful moment of discovery and learning. But sometimes plants are not new, but have merely fallen out of fashion for one reason or another, a fact which may make them more fascinating since they now have a story. Which brings me to a current obsession, the Parma violet. Although I have experimented with growing a few scented violets in the cold greenhouse, I can't say that I have ever been accused of becoming obsessed about them, until now.
All of this was triggered by an article in the latest issue of the fine journal, HORTUS which inspired to examine growing these once popular plant again, before others discover them, or help re establish a popularity, or feed the phenomenon. Humans must be ready to rediscover these rare and precious plants again, since it has been nearly a hundred years since they we're found in a florist shop or garden center, and surprisingly, the common sweet violet,Viola odorata and the Parma Violet, we're both flowers that once we're the third most popular cut flower in the world, surpassed only by the rose and the carnation.
Parma and other scented Violets are not the wild violets that one find in their yards. They may look similar, but these are tender, and not only can they not freeze, they do not set seed, and therefore never become a pest. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Violets were such a popular cut flower, both in America and in Europe, that Napoleon and Josephine declared them their most favorite, aiding in their popularity. Trains from Toulouse France would deliver over 13,000 bunches a year just to Paris and Russia. In America, there we're over 300 violet nurseries in the Hudson River valley alone in 1880, and every major city had bunches of the fragrant purple flowers ready for a gentlemens lapel, or for topping off a box of chocolates, or for a nose gay to take to the opera. The violet scent, so distinctive, yet so fleeting, since the flowers scent will numb the nose, since a chemical in the violet fragrance temporarily knock out ones sense of smell, not a bad thing in those times of open sewage and few baths.
For a number of reasons, violets quite suddenly fell out of favor in the early twentieth century. After 1910, most violet nurseries we're gone, and with them, the classic old varieties, most are now lost. Which just adds to their appeal for me. Bunches of violets were no longer a fixture on the streets of New York and London. Many of the named French varieties we're either lost through neglect or through the wars. After WWI, most violet production in Europe came to a halt, and WW2 finished off the rest of the growers in France. In America, the violet fell out of fashion, as imported African Violets (saintpaulia, and not related, came into the scene.).For nearly ninety years, fragrant Parma violets, once the choice for the finest weddings, special events and as a fragrance for candies, perfume and gum, we're virtually extinct. The classic gift at Christmas and for Saint Valentines Day,the bunch of twenty five large scented violet blossoms, with a White Camellia, gone. Replaced now by the newly introduced poinsettia or other cut flowers.
Recently, in the past few years, a few of the classic named varieties are reappearing, some have been found growing behind fallen down greenhouses in Europe or in back yard gardens. And in Toulouse France, the Violet is once again celebrated, even if they are mostly grown for the perfume industry.
Now, my goal is to acquire as many of the vintage varieties again, and grow them, photographing them for my book, and learning the classic cultural techniques for cultivation. I've been lucky enough to find two classic vintage books from the early 1900's on growing scented Parma violets commercially in England, and a book from America, as well as finding a source for some plants. Since they have to be ordered in May, this was perfect timing.
Even though I have a few Parma violets growing now in the greenhouse, I will be adding five other named French varieties, and hopefully propagating them for some cut flowers this winter. I find that the idea of recreating a lost cultural tradition such as the presentation of a nosegay of cut parma violets, fascinatingly charming, and exactly the direction that modern gardening should turn to. If one wishes to discover something new and meaningful about plants that others forgot about. Living antiques. Let's see this autumn, when they start blooming, if I can recreate the success that the French have had, and regardless, I am planning a trip to the Violet festival in Toulouse next October.