As Head Gardener at Osborne I’m often looking for period plants (ones which were available before Queen Victoria’s death in 1901) or specific varieties from the archives. I had a vague memory that one of Queen Victoria’s favourite flowers was the violet, so I decided to do some research.
Aged 14, Victoria wrote in her journal on the 30 March 1834, ‘Mamma gave me two very pretty little china baskets with violets, and some pretty buttons.’ This is the first entry (in a lifetime of keeping her detailed diaries) where she specifically mentions violets. Overall there are 105 references to violets in her journals, with many referring to picking ‘primroses and violets’ especially at Osborne.
Violets and their uses
Violets were clearly a favourite with Queen Victoria throughout her life, but they were popular for a very long time before she brought them to the forefront of fashion.
The first records describing the use of violets in Europe are from ancient Greece where they seem to have been used for medicinal purposes. They were associated with the Virgin Mary in Christian tradition, had a symbolic meaning with humility and were also used in garlands. During the Tudor period herbalists mention the plant being good for treating headaches, depression and constipation as well as being a good strewing herb. It’s around this time that the name ‘Sweet Violet’ started to be used, referring to the sweet smell given by the flowers of Viola odorata, a native plant of the UK and much of Europe.
By the 18th century violets were being used to enhance toiletries and perfumes, and were grown commercially in France and the UK. Due to their exceptional scent, Sweet and Parma violets were commonly sold as small posies, or nosegays, to help cope with the noxious smells of large cities. They were also worn as buttonholes or in hat bands.
Sir Joseph Banks, the famous plant collector and unofficial director of Kew Gardens under King George III, cultivated 300 pots of Parma violets at his garden in Isleworth in 1816. But it is really towards the middle of the century that violet production and popularity hit its peak.
A very Victorian flower
With their love of attaching meaning to flowers, Victorians regarded violets as a symbol for modesty and fidelity, due to the plant’s habit of holding its flowers in a low, nodding, deferential manner. The phrase ‘shrinking violet’, first coined by the English poet Leigh Hunt in 1820, was popularised during the Victorian era and reflected the plants’ qualities of modesty and shyness on people.
By the 1880s around 6 million violet bunches were being sold annually in Paris and exported as far afield as Russia. Queen Victoria spent many holidays on the French Riviera, especially later in her life, and often visited during the spring when the violets would be in bloom.
‘As I was coming down the hill in the pony chair, little children from the village gave me bunches of violets, primroses and other wild flowers,’ she wrote during her visit to the French Riviera in April 1885. With the queen’s endorsement, both the French Riviera and violets grew their fashionable status.
From the late 19th century violets had a slow but steady decline in popularity. The perfume industry began to use ionone, a molecule that has a violet fragrance which was isolated from the roots of Iris germanica var. florentina. The violet leaf midge, Dasineura affinis, became a considerable pest and changes in the employment market in the twentieth century made commercial growing of these plants uneconomical.
At the same time, the large stately homes that had collections of the harder to grow Parma violet struggled to keep their estates going. Several very cold winters in the mid 20th century were harsh for the plants and anyway, fashion was changing. By the end of the 1950s the fashion for violets and their commercial worth had all but disappeared, and many of the cultivars raised in the previous three centuries now have been lost.
Violets you can see at Osborne this spring
Today, violets have a small but dedicated following – including here at Osborne.
Our archives aren’t comprehensive but there are plenty of mentions of picking violets, sending violets to friends and acquaintances, and odd references of violets that must have been grown in the gardens.
In January 1882 Victoria mentioned ‘Many violets out, smelling so sweet, and many little roses,’ after a visit to the Swiss cottage. Considering the time of year could be referring to potted plants that have been forced by the gardeners. There are also many other mentions of the wild violets growing around the estate.
We have replenished our stocks of violets recently with five Parma violet cultivars and four Sweet violets. They are displayed in the cold frame in the walled garden through the winter and early spring to fill a gap in the flowering season. You will be able to see them in the gardens at Osborne until mid March, depending on the weather.
Viola ‘Swanley White’, raised in 1880, white double flowers with slight blue tints, synonymous with Viola ‘Conte di Brazza’. This cultivar won the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS) First Class Certificate in 1883.
Viola ‘Duchesse de Parme’, raised in 1870, pale lavender blue flowers, very prolific and easy to grow.
Viola ‘Lady Hume Campbell’, raised in 1875, lavender mauve flowers, synonymous with Viola ‘Gloire d’Angoulême’ and one of the varieties grown at Windsor Castle in Queen Victoria’s reign.
Viola ‘Marie Louise’, raised in 1865 but could well be older, deep lavender blue flowers and another of the cultivars grown at Windsor Castle in Queen Victoria’s reign.
Viola ‘Neapolitan’, possible the original Parma violet and in cultivation for at least 400 years, pale silvery lavender flowers, long flowering period.
Viola ‘Baronness de Rothschild’, raised in 1894, synonymous with Viola ‘Baronne Alice de Rothschild’ a lady who showed Queen Victoria her garden when on holiday in Grasse in 1891, large violet blue flowers borne on long stems, early flowering.
Viola ‘John Raddenbury’, raised in 1895, medium sized pale blue flowers, often used for cut flower production, named after the first director of Melbourne Botanic garden.
Viola ‘Koningin Charlotte’, raised in 1900, very sweetly scented, blue upward facing flowers, long flowering season from August to early spring.
Viola ‘Princess of Wales’, raised in 1889, large violet blue flowers on long stems, the most popular commercially grown cut flower, another of the cultivars grown at Windsor Castle in Queen Victoria’s reign and awarded the RHS Award of Merit in 1895.