Violet Time

One of the many frustrations of having flu is that everything tastes and smells odd. Apparently viral particles linger longer in the nose and mouth than they do in the blood, altering and inhibiting the recognition of flavours and fragrances long after one’s physical recovery has begun. Whatever causes this phenomenon, it does make one feel both thoroughly miserable and sympathetic towards those who experience permanent impediment to their senses of taste and smell. Eating and drinking is no pleasure when things don’t taste as they should.

Although I had very little appetite whilst I was suffering, all I could face was the blandest, most unseasoned food. The merest hint of salt and all I could discern was the bitter tang of metal. An attempt to mask my sickly miasma with one of my favourite scents made me feel horribly nauseous, and I am still not quite ready to wear it again now.

Whilst I was languishing in bed, my energy levels at all-time low, The Beau was still up and about, sending me photographs from his daily dog walks around Rosudgeon and Perranuthnoe. One day I woke up to a picture of some sweet violets, Viola odorata, sprouting from the base of a Cornish hedge. The image of those shy flowers against a background of emerald-green leaves cheered me up no end. I could imagine the scent without actually having to experience it, a scent which immediately transported me 350 miles to the westernmost tip of Cornwall.

Between the two World Wars violet growing was big business in the West Country, especially in these blessed parts. A special train conveyed glistening bunches of freshly-picked Cornish violets to Covent Garden Market every day through the season, which began in November and continued until May when the plants were lifted, divided and replanted. A variety called ‘Governor Herrick’ proved best suited to the Cornish climate, the drawback being that it was unscented. Unscrupulous sellers would spray the tissue-wrapped bunches with artificial scent to cover this up, especially since the violets grown in neighbouring Devon, mainly a French variety called ‘Princess of Wales’, were sweetly perfumed.

During the Second World War flower farms were requisitioned for the growing of food and violets quickly went out of fashion as a cut flower. One occasionally sees the odd bunch for sale in London, but they are a rarity and no-longer worn as a corsage or button-hole. Compared to the flowers we buy today, they are relatively short-lived, lasting for perhaps 3-5 days if misted with water. However one is highly likely to find them growing wild in Cornish hedges and gardens. Sweet violets have held on since escaping from the small walled flower fields, known locally as quillets, where they were once cultivated.

If I see sweet violets growing I always pick a few stems and pass them through a buttonhole in my jacket. From there, even on a chilly day, the delicate yet unmistakable scent reaches my nose, warding off the strongest of ‘country smells’. No doubt this is exactly why violets were so popular with ladies in 1920’s London wishing to distract themselves from the less attractive aspects of living in a polluted and overcrowded city.

If you’d like to learn more about the historic Cornish flower industry, you might enjoy a charming BBC podcast called The Flower Fields which reveals the challenges faced by those few farmers that continue the time-honoured practice of sending flowers up to London’s Covent Garden Flower Market in spring. TFG.

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24 thoughts on “Violet Time

  1. I hope you are much better now Dan and you got rid of the flu virus. It’s great that you have The Beau sending you photographs of flowers while you have to stay in bed… Thanks for the “Sweet violet post” 🙂

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  2. I didn’t know you had such local connections – maybe suggest to Beau that he visits the west Cornwall Flower Festival in Marazion Community centre on the 1st of March!

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  3. Love this post Dan! I listened to that podcast on iplayer last year, I live in Redruth and this summer I plan on a day out to seek out the quillets, Lamorna way I believe. Maybe if you’re down visiting The Beau you could take some pics of them, your camera skills are ace 😊

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    1. Yes, I shall. The Beau had already told me about the flower farm that used to be up the lane from where he lives – I get the impression it’s not there any more. I think the quillets were all down the south coast from the Lizard, but I expect they only remain in a few places.

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  4. I have never heard of a quillet. I will have to listen to this pod cast to see just what is going on there. I am glad to read that you are feeling better. Nothing worse than a flu bug to take the fun out of life.

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    1. It’s a complete party-pooper this one Lisa. I think it’s even trying to come back. Grrrr. Anyway, the podcast does shed a little more light on the term ‘quillet’. I shall not spoil your enjoyment by telling you, but like Adele I am fascinated to track down some of these tiny fields on a future visit to Cornwall. Dan

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  5. I loved this post about these little flowers. My father was evacuated from London during WW2 and stayed on a market garden near Dawlish. He used to pick sweetly perfumed violets before school to be sent by train up to Covent Garden. He always had a soft spot for sweet violets.
    Hope you are getting better, horrible flu, and that your senses are soon back to normal.

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    1. Thank you! Dawlish was traditionally the epicentre of Devon violet growing so that’s a particularly interesting anecdote. Picking violets sounds like a fiddly job, even for a schoolboy – I am surprised it did not put him off them for life!

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  6. I have wild violets growing in my garden and popping up in pots, but I am sure they are not perfumed. However they are a lovely colour so I leave them be. The worst thing about losing your taste buds is that you can’t even console yourself with a glass of wine. I always find wine tastes like vinegar when I am ill. In fact coffee is rank too! I do hope you make a speedy recovery. Spring is on its way and the gardens are beckoning…

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    1. I agree with you about the wine …. and gin and tonic. Both tasted disgusting. Even tea was borderline for a while.

      I expect your violets are scented. Perhaps pick a single flower and bring it inside for a few moments to warm up before giving it a sniff test? Should yours not be scented there are lots of alternative varieties you can grow that are. Dan

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      1. I will give that a try. They cope with the S&S and all the Cornish weather throws at them so I’m happy for them to stay. Wild things do better here 🙂 I usually drink herbal tea when I am sick – it actually tastes fine then!!

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  7. In Cardiff until the mid1950s the florist’s shops had posies of large scented violets. They cost 6 pence which was the amount of my pocket money, so I bought them to take to my Grandparents.

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    1. Sandy suggests a hidden phial of water, which I imagine would work. Misting regularly was how they were originally kept fresh, although that would not be practical once in the buttonhole! I hope you enjoyed the podcast. I found it rather soothing.

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  8. One of my favorite flower arrangements is violets and lily of the valley in tiny vases. I’ll find a photo of one and send it. So jealous, our violet season is a few months away! Grass not green yet but you know how it is here. Wilting flowers: get a test tube with a rubber stopper. For violets I’d get the tiniest one you can. Poke a hole in it. Put the violets in your buttonhole and stick the teeny test tube somewhere underneath. I’m thinking a suit coat with a little pocket kind of thing.

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    1. Sounds like a plan! Thank you for sharing the photographs with me. Such a classy lady! I love the combination of violet and lily of the valley in those beautiful vases. Arrangements don’t have to be big to be beautiful.

      Meanwhile we’ve just had our warmest winter day EVER here in the UK at just over 20ºC. I left work this evening feeling very stupid in a winter coat with a scarf, but it was chilly at 5.30am when I left the house!

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  9. Glad you are on the mend and feeling more normal! Yes Cornish flowers…my father lived for many years in the hills above Hayle and Lelant and his partners family used to grow and harvest violets and lily of the valley for the London markets back in the day! She would tell of how many blooms to pick and arrange and how they should be wrapped in tissue paper and then top to tailed in cartons and delivered to St Erth station to catch the Paddington train!

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  10. Violets seem to grow like weeds in most climates except here. They do not like the aridity. I see them growing in meadows in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, and have even brought a few back, but they do not do nearly as well.

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  11. Hi Dan, I am new to garden blogs, the first one I found and now follow is the Patient Gardener . Looking for others found yours and was inspired I have just ordered 4 different violets, I have one wild one growing already in my own garden. So thank you. I look forward to about reading future things happening in your garden.

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    1. Hello Sue. Delighted you found me! Good luck with your violets. I hope they bring you great joy. Tune into Gardeners’ World this Friday and you’ll briefly see me and my garden filmed on a much warmer day last August.

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