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Sweet Violet

Viola odorata

Today I opened my eagerly awaited box of sweet violets, and they are among the last of my fall plantings. After researching them last fall, I found the one nursery in the U.S. that specializes in violets and since I was a little late in their fall delivery season, I waited all year to order them, for fear that a spring planting might be too hard on them. I contented myself in the meantime with experimenting with other fragrant plants I had never tried, like sweet peas and garden pinks.

I have never smelled a sweet violet before, and I suspected they might have the same light fruity fragrance that other violas have. But I was wrong. As I opened the package I could smell a distinct fragrance I had never smelled before. Surprisingly, some of the violets were in bloom, particularly “D’Udine”, a pretty little double violet.

I love garden surprises, and ordering things I have never touched or smelled before. Just their mystique is enough. Never mind if I don’t have anywhere to plant them.

There are just some fragrances that are hard to compare to anything else, and of all the flowers I have smelled this year, both sweet peas and violets are unusual. They are unusual in that they have nothing easily like another fragrance. Even exotic florals like jasmine or gardenia, freesia or the most wildly fragrant rose have something familiar or recognizable about them, cousins to another fragrance. These sweet violets are not the musky-citrusy-rosy-woody fragrances of rose. They are not the powdery cloud-like fragrance of Moonflower and other white flowers or lilies. They are not the fruity or grapey scent of lilacs or some irises. Or the musky-sweet of daffodils. Or the spicy-clove common to Dianthus. All of these fragrances somehow remind us of something else. How does one describe fragrance? I’m faltering here. Using comparisons or tones and notes as we do with wine just doesn’t help.

It doesn’t help that I have such a penetrating sense of smell even when my allergies are at their worst. I can smell things that most people don’t detect, and the fragrance department of stores is the worst kind of art to me, putting everything together all at once and giving me an aching headache every time. My bodyworker friend said the fastest way to the brain is through scent. There are people that are full-time fragrance sniffers in France, and perhaps that should have been my profession but again, I think I would be overwhelmed. Or perhaps I’d learn to segregate the spiritual tones of fragrance.

For such diminutive flowers, these violets have a sweetness that is just very, well, violet. They seem the essence of that color; not too plummy but not too candy-red. Somewhere in the middle, girlish and womanly at once. And very distinct, not disappearing into the mist or the earth as some fragrances do, but a statement with (as we do say with wine) a beginning, middle and end. It is no wonder that sweet violets are harvested for perfume. I have a face cream with sweet violet essential oil in it, amongst others, and I love the idea that I am lavishing my face with this.

I have not said much about the plant itself, a low-lying and spreading plant whose flowers come up on tiny two- or three-inch stalks. Much like annual violas or pansies (whose flowers and leaves are much larger). There are too many types of violas to mention here, but Viola odorata is a perennial that is often used as a ground cover or front-of-the-border flower, filling in and among other plants. In my case, I want to show them off so they are being given their own little planting space along my backyard pathway, shaded mostly by our enormous Eastern Red Cedar tree.

I am trying four different violets: Lianne and Baronne de Alice Rothschild are single-flowered violets. D’Udine and Duchesse du Parme are Parma violets, a special group of very double-flowered and highly fragrant violets. I look forward to seeing how these do in their special bed.

  1. Samantha Torpey #

    I’m looking, too, for parma violet plants. What nursery has them? I can’t seem to find one online. Thanks.

    February 29, 2012
    • Amy #

      Hi Samantha, I have not visited my comments in a long time so I’m sorry to be replying late. I bought most of these, including the parma violets, via mail order from Canyon Creek Nursery in California. Unfortunately, they’re no longer in the mail-order business–sad, because it’s very hard to find different varieties of sweet violets! Many of these did not survive because our winters are too dry and warm. Select Seeds carries four varieties of violets, including Duchesse du Parme. I have also occasionally seen viola odorata plants at Bluestone Perennials. Hope you find some! The fragrance is out of this world.

      November 6, 2012

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