Sandy’s Garden ... Violets

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

One of the so-called ‘birth flowers’ for the month of February is the violet.

Despite having given its name to a colour, violets can also be yellow or white as well as the eponymous shade of purple. A very welcome harbinger of spring, wild violets are much scarcer in the United Kingdom than they used to be as intensive farming has drastically reduced the incidence of hedgerows in the countryside and destroyed much of their favoured shady habitat. However, violets do grow well in cultivation and are in no danger of extinction.

It is slightly surprising that they are a birth flower for February, for they usually wait until March to start flowering. The supposed ‘language of flowers’, much favoured by our Victorian ancestors, specified that violets were a symbol of loyalty and faithfulness. Offering violets to someone was a way of letting them know that you would always be there for them to rely on, a true friend. Yet many of their multitude of once-common names have sexual overtones, names like ‘cuddle me,’ ‘kiss-me-at-the-garden-gate’ or ‘kiss-her-in-the-buttery’, most … if not all … of which have passed into the limbo of forgotten things since the majority of Britons ceased living in the country and became town-dwellers. But our peasant ancestors certainly had plenty of names for violets – ‘heart’s ease’, ‘pink-eyed John’, ‘love lies bleeding’, ‘love in idleness’, ‘wild pansy’ and ‘the flower of modesty’ to name just a few of what I believe is more than a staggering two hundred names. Mark you, humanity has had a love affair with this pretty flower for millennia, to the extent that they feature in one section of a European Commission funded project entitled A European Journey Through Legends.

I learn from this study that the reason for the name ‘the flower of modesty’ is because the violet hides its flowers in its heart-shaped leaves. The project’s website assures me that “the name ‘heart’s ease’ stemmed from its old use as a medicine to treat heart disease. People believed God gave the plant heart-shaped leaves for that use. The name may also come from its ancient use as an aphrodisiac and a love potion.” Interestingly … and confusingly … the Greeks and the Romans associated violets with funerals and death. Members of both ancient civilisations scattered violets around tombs, often completely covering children’s graves with a blanket of flowers.

On a happier note, the Romans … who liked their wine … used violets to decorate the tables at banquets, apparently in the belief that the flowers’ scent would prevent the diners from becoming drunk; and, as well as putting the flowers to this sobering use, they also made wine from them and used them in the treatment of gout and disorders of the spleen. The better part of a thousand years later, English herbalists thought that violet flowers offered one protection from evil spirits; and here in Scotland our Celtic forebears used the flowers in salves and beauty lotions. In the Middle Ages violets were widely used to ease pain, a use which has some foundation in fact, for the plants contain salicylic acid, the chief ingredient in today’s aspirin. I must add, at this point, the usual caveat that I am merely reporting these matters; I am not suggesting that any reader relies on any of the customs of our ancestors.

Today, some people believe that it is a sure sign of good fortune if violets feature in one’s dreams, while others believe that wearing a garland of violets prevents dizziness – perhaps a continuation of the advice offered two thousand years ago by the Roman author, naturalist and natural philosopher Pliny, who recommended wearing a garland of violets to ward off headaches and dizzy spells. I think drinking less might be a better idea!