This past week hasn’t been record cold, but nightly temperatures into the mid-20’s can really set (or kill) plants back. I pulled a few potted plants that I didn’t want to risk losing into the safety of my parent’s garage and one of which is a heirloom violet. A violet? Yes, a violet. I know what you’re thinking, what’s the big deal? Yeah. Well Viola is a diverse genus that includes the classic pansy, but when people hear the name ‘violet’ they think of a shade-loving perennial with dainty blue/purple flowers. Violets are pretty hardy here in the Northwest and some are on the verge of almost being a noxious weed (ahem, Viola labradorica), but my violet is a bit different. Hailing from Italy, it’s known to be more tender than your usual violet and it’s a reluctant seed producer. What is it? It’s a Parma violet.
Out of bloom Parma violets can be easily overlooked – low, herbaceaous, glossy heart-shaped-leaves, and gently stoloniferous – but late autumn is when these violets really shine. As the days become cooler and the sun begins to lower its angle, this violet begins to bloom. The delicate buds unfold revealing a double flower delightfully congested with petals in colors (depending on the variety) ranging from lavender, to pink, to white. The flowers are lovely, but they are most famous for their sweet, velvety fragrance. The dreamy scent is difficult to describe and almost as elusive. If you’ve ever smelt one you may have noticed that the fragrance seems to fade and disappear after a minute and magically reappear yet again a minute later. It has been found that the scent of the violet contains ionone compounds that numbs the human nose and turns off its ability to smell the fragrance for a brief period of time. Cool, right?!
Parma violets are quite rare now and their murky origins adds to their mystique. No one really knows where they came from, but some say they came from the Near East, yet others say from Northern Africa. Many botanists speculate that Parmas are actually ancient hybrids, though genetic testing has placed them to be the most closely related to Viola odorata, the English Sweet violet.
The Bourbons brought the first Parma violets in the 16th Century to Parma, Italy (hence the name) where they would be introduced to cultivation. Empress Joséphine, Napoleon’s first wife, loved fragrant flowers especially roses and violets, so throughout her life she collected and grew many varieties. Joséphine’s habit of overspending, engaging in affairs, and her inability to bare a heir to the empire resulted in Napoleon’s decision to divorce in 1810. He would “propose” and marry Marie Louise of Austria who would bare Napoleon a heir a year later.
Napoleon loved Parma violets as well and always kept a bouquet near (perhaps to remind him of Joséphine…?). This would be the first introduction and beginning of Marie Louise’s infatuation with violets. Marie Louise dressed in violet, wore the flowers frequently, painted them, violets were engraved, printed and etched on everything, and she had them grown in all her city and country gardens. She even had monks capture the essence of the violets in a perfume just for her. When the French Empire collapsed and Napoleon was exiled to Elba, he would never see Marie Louise or his son again. Near the end of Napoleon’s exile Joséphine died from pneumonia. When word traveled to him, he was so devastated he locked himself in his room for two days and later wrote to a friend “I truly loved my Joséphine, but I did not respect her.” Two days after Napoleon returned from exile in St. Helena, he collected violets from Joséphine’s garden and wore them in a locket until his death. HOT MESS.
During Napoleon’s second and final exile to St. Helena, Marie Louise separated from Napoleon and gained the title Duchess of Parma. She would rule Parma, Piacenza, and Guastalla until her death. Popularity for violets would continue to grow and peak in the Victorian Era and reach the American Continent where it would rein as the most popular winter cut flower before fading into history in the early-20th Century.
Phew, I got a little carried away with that history lesson there… It’s amazing to think that I own small piece of history – a tangible memory of the past – and it’s sitting on my windowsill! It’s even more amazing that I found one! Since these violets fell out of fashion they are difficult to obtain and many cultivars have been lost to time, however there has been a small effort to bring these violets back into cultivation.
Last spring I was taking a stroll through the Washington Park Arboretum and had to stop by at the Pat Calvert Greenhouse. (It’s a volunteer run organization that sells propagated plants from the arboretum’s collection, so you know there is a lot of good stuff you can’t find else where.) I was just passing through one of the shade houses when I noticed the word ‘Parma’ on a label and stopped dead in my tracks. What. Was I seeing things? If it did say Parma, was it referring to another plant? I quickly walked up to the bench and to my disbelief (OMG) it was a Viola ‘Duchesse de Parme’! I snatched that baby up immediately (I almost bought two) and it joined me on a pleasant sunny spring afternoon. I was extremely appreciative that my parents kept it well watered in the summer while I was away in DC (though I wish I could say that about other plants…). The violet must have been too, since it’s been blooming from late November.
Anyway, I should get back to more plant labels for the Northwest Flower & Garden Show. Oh speaking of which, Edelweiss Perennials will be at the show again this year and they always have many blooming Viola odorata for sale and maybe even Parma violets this time. Stop by and smell them for yourself, you won’t regret it!