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.