January 18, 2011

Oh, beloved Violette de Parma, though shalt never return

The true Violette de Parma, as picked in my greenhouse last year. Here, Viola 'Parme de Toulouse'

Today I am trying something new, a few of us are cross-posting about the same subject which today is 'WHAT'S OLD IS NEW AGAIN'. Let me know what you think! And be sure to check out my fellow bloggers posts on the same subject. First, Joseph at GREENSPARROW garden shares his interpretation of what's old is new again. Also Francis at the popular blog FAIREGARDEN has a post where she covers the iconoclasts of classic old-fashioned plants, (what I personally remember from my childhood- yeah, I'm old! )  an inspiring post on those vintage plants that many of you may find in abandoned gardens or homesteads.

 Francis writes about what I remember that was in my mothers garden; the stately Oriental Poppies, those muddy colored Daylilies, and brownish grapey German Bearded Iris. The last participant is Ryan of NOMICSCIENCE ,  who writes about many old-fashioned plants that come to his mind,  as he explores his thoughts on what old-fashioned plants are. Ryan, Primula are certainly appealing to think about in January where I live!

My contribution to this list is the rarely seen Parma Violet, or scented violet ( not to be confused with the common garden violet, or African violets, for that matter). Parma Violets may not be familiar to you, but your great grandmother surely would swoon over the scent. One of the most popular cut flowers commerially around the turn of the Nineteenth Century, the Parma Violet is one old fashioned plant that Even though I have an attraction to truly old-fashioned plants like Scented violets, I have to admit that  a true comeback is doubtful. It's a different world today.
 Experience the flavor of violets in some candy and gum found in Australia or on vintage candy websites.

Cultivated for centuries in Europe since the 1600's, scented violets come from a mysterious place since botanically, their taxonomic affinity has not been found to link to any other violet. Viola odorata is the closest relative genetically, perhaps combined with V. suavis and V. alba that we find wild in our gardens, Parma violet cultivars have a clear connection with many Viola alba varieties but most scientists today connect them with all three species, in some what, and include them with the Mediterranean Viola ssp. dehnhardtii.

All violets are Viola species, so technically, Pansy's, and Johnny Jump Ups  are all Viola's, but when most people think of violets, what comes to mind is the garden violet, or the self seeding garden pest that we all still love,  Viola sororia. Which looks very much like Viola odorata, but which spreads invasively in North American gardens. Still lovely when picked, it lacks the intense fragrance of the Parma Violet, or Viola odorata. I sill like them, ( although my favorite violet is Viola jooi, and alpine plant, or Viola pedata, the birds foot violet.).My new fav is the Korean Violet, Viola coreana. Still, no fragrance but what a show!

But we really don't care about all of that, all we know is that Parma Violets are amazing, since their backstory is worthy of a Hollywood move ( with a love affair involving the Romans, Shakespeare, Napoleon and Queen Victoria, all cherished Parma Violets as a perfume or as a cutflower). Today, not so much. Good luck even finding a plant. But there are six species that are truly fragrant still left. Viola alba ssp. alba, V. alba ssp. cretica, V. alba ssp. dehnhardtii, V. odorata and V. suavis. Even V. sintenisii has some scent but not one has a true connection to the classic Viola 'Parme de Toulouse'.

This is one of those cross-over plants where there is both a vintage flavor element almost lost to mankind, and a heirloom plant element almost lost in culture. Above, Liquer de Violette by Briottet. Violetinni, anyone?

Viola odorata - both the pink and blue vintage forms, available sometimes from Logee's Greenhouses

In the 1800's and 1900's, greenhouses  grew Violets for sale in major cities like London, Paris, and New York, in fact, some of the worlds largest Violet nurseries could be found in upstate New York along the Hudson river. Today, literally no one in North America grows true Parma violets, the double, sweetly scented French cultivars sometimes appear on lists from Violet Societies to micro nurseries, but essentially, the varieties are lost. What you can grow is Viola odorata ( still, not an easy plant to find) ( try Logees), and unless you live in Southern France in Toulouse, where they still grow the classic form for the perfume trade en masse, the rest of the world will only experience true scented violets in candy, perfume or a liqueur.


 In  Toulouse France, there is a resurgence in Violetmania and some groups are working on micro-propagating some of the ancient named forms so we may see some available in the future,  at least for the horticultural market, after all, before the red rose was commercially grown, Scented Violets were the traditional Valentines Day flower, with boxes of Chocolates bedecked with tied nosegays as late as 1910. Even Christmas time, meant that sweet scented violets would be on ones lap at a concert in 19th Century London.

In a genus where there are over 600 species, the unknown phylogyney of this violet cross is sad, but a few cultivars are still handed down in France, and one sometimes can get some. I grow some old named forms, as well as the more available V. odorata if you can find the true, fragrant species. It is not cold hardy below 20 deg. F, but I grow it in an unheated glasshouse, just as they did at the turn of the last century. Try them in cold frames, and maybe by next Valentines Day, you can surprise your sweetie with something really special - a bundle a scented violets!  Hey, that does leave us with about 200 species to grow in our gardens ( if we really choose to). which don't have scent, but that look exactly the same to the average gardener.

The lost or rarely found named varieties of Parma Violets are:

Viola 'Ash Vale Blue"
V. 'Marie Louise'
V. 'Gloire de Verdun'
V. 'Parme de Toulouse'
V. ''D'Udine'


Casbas N.. 2002. Parma seeds discovery. Violet Society Journal 4: 11-12

Chauchard B. Munzinger J. Marcussen T. Henry M.. 2003. L'étude caryologique de deux cultivars de Violettes odorantes remet en cause leur origine taxonomique. Acta Botanica Gallica 150: 85-93

Coombs R. E.. 1981. Violets: the history and cultivation of scented violets Croom Helm, London, UK..

Foissy A.. 1884. Culture des violettes de Parme. Revue Horticole 1884: 102-104.

Marcussen T.. 2006. Allozymic variation in the widespread and cultivated Viola odorata in western Eurasia. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 151: 563-571

Robinson P. M. Snocken J.. 2002. Checklist of the cultivated forms of the genus Violaincluding the register of cultivars American Violet Society, Washington D.C., USA. http://americanvioletsociety.org/Registry

Tucker A. O.. 2000. The botanical names of the sweet violets. Violet Gazette


  1. Saw some teeny tiny itty bitty bunches of cut violets at the Boston Flower exchange one day this past December, but sadly they had no fragrance to speak of or it was overwhelmed by all the other scents.

    They were darling, but so small I didn't have the first clue what to do with them, not sure I even had a vase small enough...perhaps a shot glass would have worked?

  2. Matt,

    When I invited you to join in with us on blogging about old fashioned plants, I had a feeling you'd bring the most obscure items to the table. But that's why I invited you! I love the depth of knowledge and viewpoint you contribute. I would love to grow some of these scented violets in my garden.

  3. Anonymous12:44 PM

    Thanks for posting this information. Any comments about visiting the festival in Toulouse France? Thanks again and have a great day>

    Story about last American grower of cut violets:

  4. Nice post...love those old faves. I've never actually grown violets on purpose...but love when they pop up here and there...it's such a nice surprise.

  5. Many years ago I bought two boxed handkerchiefs embroidered with violets for my daughters. This year my daughter used hers on her wedding day. Sprout you could have used an old cut glass salt shaker so if you see them, try that as a vase. I have used them for lily of the valley and cyclamen blooms along with the wild violets from.the lawn.

  6. Am I imagining that Amos Pettingill of WFF was selling parma violets in the early catalogues? (I'm old too!)

  7. You are not imagining it, White Flower Farm did carry Viola odorata in the 1990's, but I am not sure if they carried the true Parma named varieties. It would not be surprising. I should go look in our attic and see if I can find some of the early catalogs from the 1960's when my parents used to order from there.

    Of note ( you probably know this) but there is no real Amos Pettingil, he was a fictional character made up by the original owners. Here is the story from the NY Times: "Mr. Wadsworth, a former Wall Street broker, assumed the voice of Amos when he bought White Flower Farm in 1976; it had belonged to two New York writers, William Harris and Jane Grant, who had started the nursery in 1950."

  8. hopflower11:08 AM

    There are violet farms in England as well. Still grown there, as well as in France.

  9. Anonymous12:55 PM

    Any luck on finding the Parma Violets in England or France? Does anyone know if seeds can be purchased from a an English or French grower and shipped? Please,please! I'm becoming obsessed!

    1. You can buy Viola odorata 'Parme de Toulouse' here in Holland at:
      I would like to have one myself so will go there and see if the have any available. If you want I can buy you one and ship perhaps? Just let me know.

  10. Thanks for this post. I was researching violets because I collect French vintage postcards and a lot of them have violets. I was curious as to which holiday they signified.

    I think they were also sent as general cards for friendship. I have one card who's postmark is September 15, 1905. My French husband says it was probably for a Saint's Day - like his, St. Michel-Sept. 29.

    In a French site, I found on the Language of Flowers, the Violette de Parme signified "Let me Love you". A double Violet is "I share your love (or friendship.)

    Thanks also for solving the mystery of why the violets growing in my backyard have no scent!

  11. I found scented violets for sale at a farmers market in Waimea, Hawaii last weekend. Wow, was I surprised! They smell just like those old violet candies we used to see at the grocery. I am searching now for other ones

  12. oldfashgirl3:33 PM

    The aroma of blooming violets planted enmass is absolutely magnificent! Unfortunately named varieties for sale are difficult to come by. Personaly, I am besotted with all things violet, drinks ( there are alcoholic receipts), candy, violet flavored fondant fillings enrobed in chocolate, as well as the hues and motifs. One really good source was Canyon Creek Nursery in California which sold plants mail order, however the owner now only sells locally. There is a company in the U.K. called Groves that sells seeds of many cultivars. If anyone knows of someone that sells plants of different varieties in the U.S I'd love the information.

  13. Anonymous9:30 PM

    Hi everyone, I have just been given 3 palma violet plants. I have the "commom" violet, also our Australian native violet(cute) How close should I plant thease palmas together? I live in central Victoria , Australia. thank you, A C


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