Frolic! Flower School: All About Violets

violets in bag
Violets! I’ve been obsessed since as a kid I watched My Fair Lady and Eliza sold violets on the street. It used to be that every florist had a greenhouse filled with violets as they were all the rage for cut flowers from Victorian times into the mid 20th century. I remember the strange, dark, florist of my childhood had a dilapidated greenhouse in the back and I’ve often imagined they grew violets there at one point.

I am not talking about your houseplant African violets but rather the sweet violet, Viola Odorata and earlier it was the Parma Violet (an old-fashioned, sort of double-petaled violet). Growing like a weed in a lot of areas (I dream of a lawn of violets!), florists sold them, cut and bunched together with leaves around the edge. The strong, sweet fragrance, more intense as the violets are fresh and as they get warm from body heat as you hold the bouquet, offered an antidote to smelly city streets. During certain times, it was quite fashionable to be seen carrying violets around. “It is estimated that at the beginning of the 1880’s, circa six million violet bunches were sold every year in Paris. Foreign countries,such as England, Belgium, Germany, Austria,and even Russia were dependent on the French violets from Paris and Southern France” (source, History and Cultivation of Parma Violets (Viola, Violaceae) in the United Kingdom and France in the Nineteenth Century).
fresh cut violets lisbon
Last week I had to run back out to the sea to pick up some artwork I left (appropriately, my Lucy Auge pieces!), and was carrying them back in a rainstorm as I walked through Chiado and noticed the beautiful Pequeno Jardim had violets for sale! Eeeeeeeek! I was beside myself. It’s so unusual to see bunches of violets sold as cut flowers anymore. In the US, almost unheard of. Years ago, I was able to secure one of the last shipments from the US’s last commercial grower. When the box of violets arrived (with the longest stems I’d ever seen!). I nearly cried. They were so, so beautiful. It was around Valentine’s day. I’d put the word out to some of my customers that we would have fresh violets. Within the day they arrived, sweet grannies and older ladies arrived, almost crying when they picked up the violets! Saying they hadn’t seen fresh cut violet bouquets since their childhood. It’s one of my favorite shop memories for sure.
violet odorata
These nostalgic little bunches only last about two or three days, hence the reason the’ve faded from the commercial floral industry. But to me, their fleeting nature makes them even more beautiful. I was so, so happy carrying them home in the rain that day, sniffing them as I walked! To be in the middle of the city and to find such a treasure made me so, so happy! I set them by the window when I got home to ensure they’d last as long as possible.
fresh cut violets
How to harvest and care for fresh cut violets:
1. Harvest in the morning or late at night. Immediately placing them in cold water.
2. Re-cut the stems with a very sharp florist’s knife and place into fresh cold water.
3. They like to be lightly misted.
4. Keep cool and away from sunlight and heaters.
5. They will last 2-3 days after cut.
To grow violets:
1. They love shady, woodland areas but can handle more sun too.
2. Violets bloom in the winter and spring as they love the colder weather.
3. Cut back after blooming.
More violet resources:
The American Violet Society
History and Cultivation of Parma Violets (Viola, Violaceae) in the United Kingdom and France in the Nineteenth Century
The Guardian: A Celebration of Sweet Violets
More Frolic! posts about violets: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
Photos: Chelsea Fuss.