Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, I wanted to feature the dog violet as a Wednesday Weed before it finishes flowering. There is a fine bed of it in the cemetery, stretching back between the trees for about 30 metres, and it gives the whole area a purple-blue haze.
Identifying violas to the species level is actually very difficult, but I have gone along with this being Common Dog Violet because, as its name suggests, it is our commonest species, and because several diagnostic features are right: for example, the ‘spur’ at the back of the flower is lighter than the petals in this species, and the lines on the lower petal, the ‘nectar guides’, are very pronounced. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, there were thought to be over forty species and subspecies of violets, including many hybrids, but in his New Flora of the British Isles, the inimitable botanist Clive Stace has trimmed it back to twenty eight species, sub-species and hybrids.
What a delicate, pretty flower this is. Often it peeps out from below a hedgerow and if you weren’t paying attention it would be easy to miss it. It is a native plant, and has been a feature of our poetry for centuries. Perhaps the most famous mention of the violet is in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’:
And I must admit that I felt tempted to have a little doze in the cemetery when I spotted the violets, the sun was so warm and the buzzing of bees so soporific. But artists have also identified something melancholy about the violet, maybe because of its perceived shyness, and its brief flowering period. My favourite Shakespeare violet quote is from Hamlet, when Ophelia, driven mad by our hero, says to the assembled, horrified company that:
‘I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died.’
Although I am not a great lover of Wordsworth’s poetry (too many weeks spent studying ‘The Lyrical Ballads’ for my A Levels I fear), I do find his poem ‘The Lost Love’ very moving. I think we can all identify with the final lines.
‘She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove:
A maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love.
A violet by a mossy stone
Half-hidden from the eye!-
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!’
Many of the folkloric associations of the violet have to do with its assumed modesty. One of the goddess Diana’s nymph companions was changed into a violet to protect her from being ravished by Apollo. In the Victorian ‘language of flowers’ they represent delicacy in love. It is also said that violets bloomed wherever Orpheus put down his lute.
So, why ‘dog’ violet? It is thought that this is to distinguish this plant from the perfumed ‘sweet violet’ (Viola odorata), which I have not yet managed to find. It is this scented species which has been used in perfume-making since medieval times, and I well remember that when we used to holiday in Devon as children, every gift shop had a heady aroma of ‘Devon Violets’ perfume, which was inclined to give my mother a migraine. There were also violet-flavoured sweets, and a violet liquer (which was a violent violet colour) called ‘Parfait Amour’. These days, I limit myself to a box of rose and violet creme chocolates at Christmas, though I can scoff the lot in under an hour if left alone with them.
Many of the medicinal uses of violets relate to the Sweet Violet, but according to The Modern Herbal website, Culpeper refers to the leaves of all species as being useful in a poultice for inflammation, and to relieve ‘pains in the head through lack of sleep’. An infusion of the flowers and leaves is said to assist with the symptoms of throat complaints, including cancer. The root is said to be extremely emetic and purgative. Mixing thirty-six violet leaves with melted lard is said to produce an ointment which can be used for swollen neck glands.
If violets are to be used for flavouring then Sweet Violet will be used, but the flowers of Common Dog Violet can be used to pretty-up salads, or, crystallised with egg white and sugar, to adorn cakes. I’m not sure if the cake below quite sums up the delicate effects that I’m sure can be achieved but hey, I’d eat it.
As we might expect, the violet has also been part of the work of many artists. It is included in the garden of ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ tapestry, made in Flanders in the sixteenth century. Here, it is symbolising modesty, as usual.
By the time of Manet, it was being used for its colour and form rather than for its symbolic value. In the picture below, I love the juxtaposition of the flowers against the red fan, and the lavender-edged writing paper. I also enjoy the way that the flowers are seen here against the darkness. I remember that Napoleon scattered Josephine’s coffin with the flowers of violets.
And, to link back to the association of violets with death and sorrow, have a look at this Magritte picture, titled ‘La Grande Guerre’ (‘The Great War’), from the Magritte Gallery The face of the woman is replaced by a posy of violets, such as one might throw onto a coffin.
How intent we are on attaching symbolic value to flowers, which are actually the fierce face of a plant’s determination to reproduce itself. And how interesting that a violet can be a symbol of melancholy, of modesty, and of the dreaminess of a summer evening, all at the same time.
Photo One – By Lsalvay – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25641207
All other photographs copyright Vivienne Palmer