Of Violets and of Moss
There are violets that grow in my garden; there’s a patch of them at the end of the drive which is expanding steadily, year on year, and because the garden there is a raised area, the flowers are almost at eye level. You just need to bend over to be able to smell the tiny purple blooms. These are sweet violets, I should add, to distinguish them from dog violets which have no scent.
Speaking of the scent of violets, people often wince, and refer to the Parma violets sweets or to Devon violets perfume which was often the standby perfume gift for young girls in the 70s and 80s. During my childhood, while I liked Devon violets perfume (sometimes also April violets was the name) I was forbidden to use it as the pathology lab and morgue my father had worked at as a young man had used a violet- scented disinfectant and the smell reminded him so powerfully of death and decay he would become quite ill if he smelled it.
It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered that actual sweet violets don’t smell much like the perfume at all. In a big shopping centre in Nottingham, a flower seller was offering bunches of sweet violets for a quid. I bought some and I took them home, enchanted and enlightened. That pungent, sickly fragrance from the cheap perfume has only the very faintest of resemblances to real violets. Some years after that, living in very rural Norfolk, I happened upon an entire bank of them, glowing in the spring sunshine and filling the air with a totally heavenly aroma. You could almost imagine the passing of angelic wings giving off this scent as they passed. In Mrs Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, she cites the use of violet leaves as a successful nostrum for cancer, giving the case history of a nurseryman with advanced colon cancer being cured by a preparation of the herb (though the quantities used are vast!). I do not know whether any modern research has been done on the herb (the Modern Herbal was published in the 1930s) but I do wonder whether the properties need another look-at. I use a tea made with a mix of violet leaves and other herbs to encourage good dreams at night.
One of the curious aspects of the scent of sweet violets is that when you smell them, a few moments later, you can no longer smell them at all. The molecules have a sort of anaesthetic effect on your sense of smell; you go nose blind. So if you are walking through an area where lots of the flowers are in bloom, the fragrance will seem to come and go.
Much of the time, though, because violets are often regarded as invasive weeds, you tend not to find them in gardens at all. So letting ours spread means we are finally getting patches of glory. At this time of year you still need to bend over, get close to the earth to be able to partake of this glory. The accepted wisdom of why flowers have a scent is to attract pollinators but with violets, relatively few of the pretty blossoms actually ever produce any seeds. I don’t know why this is so but violets have more than one trick up their silken sleeves. Violets have developed numerous ways to spread. Violets spread by underground rhizomes and may form vegetative colonies. They also spread by a different seeding method. Flowers near the soil surface that never really open, called cleistogamous or non-opening, self-pollinating, shoot seeds out to establish a new colony away from the parent. For more info on this fascinating plant do have a peep at the link here: https://awkwardbotany.com/2020/07/08/the-hidden-flowers-of-viola/
For me, violets are an unexpected gift from life, quite other than I imagined them to be. Perfumes rarely capture the true beauty of a scent, and this is one where the synthetic perfumes associated with the flower fall very short of the reality. Yardley have always produced a violet perfume; in my childhood and until fairly recently, it was very much the classic Parma violets sort of scent. But recently it was reformulated (to various online wails of protest, because it left behind the very sickly-sweet variant) and is far closer now to the mossy, green, and ethereal odour of sweet violets in a hidden nook. Guerlain does two perfumes that have violet at the heart, Apres L’Ondee, and Insolence, if you wanted to push the boat out as they both cost a hefty amount more than the very modest Yardley offering.
Another treasure you need to get close to to appreciate its extraordinary beauty is moss. In the last year especially, I’ve found myself assailed by more anxiety attacks and even panic attacks, than for many years. Purely by chance, I found a grounding method that works for me, and that is when I feel that rising tidal wave of panic, I look for moss. Even in the centre of Norwich, there is moss to be found. It sits on old stone walls as little tussocks of velvet; it hides between paving slabs and on rooftops. The purity of the greenness is soothing and calming; the texture is often soft and reassuring. The closer you look, the more you see. Little fronds uncurling, tiny flowering stems extending into the cold air, often holding beads of dew or rain like jewels being shyly but proudly held out for your admiration. Lichens too will draw my eye; these lowly beings are a scientific marvel and mystery, being not individuals but rather communities working in harmony for the good of all. Made up of fungi, bacteria, algae, lichens are everywhere, some only where the air is clean and pure. I’m currently reading Merlin Sheldrake’s book on fungi Entangled Life which has a chapter on lichens; it’s a revelation how little we yet know about lichens and fungi, and the discoveries are already challenging how we see life as a whole.
Today is Epiphany, the day when the Magi brought their gifts to the Christ-child, named as gold, frankincense and myrrh, and it seems fitting that I have brought you a few gifts too, of violets and of moss, of things you need to get close to the earth to begin to appreciate, maybe even on your knees to even see, and start to ponder on the need for humility in its truest meaning (that of being close to the earth).