V is for Violet

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

Aristophanes referred to Athens as “the violet-crowned city,” and the bloom represents Greece. Pliny described violet’s use in curing gout.

In Medieval times, people called sweet violet “our lady’s modesty” and symbolized humility.  John Gerard in his 1536 “Of the Historie of Plants” said, “Gardens themselves receive by these (violets) the greatest ornament of all, chiefest beauty and most excellent grace, and the recreation of the minde which I taken hereby cannot be but very good and honest…” It was used medicinally in Europe for such ailments as inflammations, heart disease, fevers, and scorpion stings. Violet is known as banafsa, banafsha, or banaska in India where it is used as a sore throat treatment.

A sonnet from 1584 by Malone reads, “Violet is for faithfulnesse…” Violet’s meanings changed over the years. It tendency to wilt gave it the reputation for delicacy. Its royal coloring meant nobility. To dream of violets means good fortune awaits, and the flower is the image of daydreams. It Is believed to raise intuition and invoke spiritual thoughts.

Violet is the birth flower for February. Violet given to a friend conveys admiration, and violet commemorates a couple’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. Because of its association with death and the resurrection, it is often presented at funerals as well. Shelley used violet to commemorate the departed in his poem “On a Faded Violet,” saying, “The odor from the flower is gone, which like thy kisses breathed on me. The flower from the flower is flown, which glowed of thee and only thee…”

William Shakespeare used the image of the violet eighteen times in his writings, associating it with beauty and sweetness, and to him, it seemed to symbolize sweetness. In “Hamlet,” Laertes said at his sister Ophelia’s funeral, “Lay her I’ the earth, and from her fair and unpolluted flesh may violets spring!”

Much like Persephone gathering flowers, an English maid named Violet attracted the attention of a powerful supernatural male. King Frost abducted her, and the girl’s gentle nature warmed the cruel king, and like the Greek personification of Spring, Violet returned to her home for but a short time each year.

Flowers appear as early as February and last through April. They volunteer in lawns and proliferate in shady clearings. Longfellow said of the violet it “…lurk(s) among all the lovely children of the shade.”

In an account from the seventeenth century by Russian traveler Gmelin, Tartars ate the roots of violets cooked into a thick soup. Victorians candied violets for breath mints and garnishes. They incorporated violet’s delicate scent into powders, sachets, and toilet waters. Carrying violet flowers attracts good luck, and sleeping atop the blooms enhances prophetic dreams. Harvesting the first violets of the season grants wishes, and the heart-shaped leaves of the violet absorb evil and ill-will.

Enthusiasts of the flower join the American Violet Society. Musical Theatre International adapted Doris Betts’ 1973 short story “The Ugliest Pilgrim” in the musical “Violet.” The name Violet remains popular for young ladies. Violet is one of three main protagonists in the Lemony Snicket “Series of Unfortunate Events.”