Ever smell a sweet violet on a crisp spring morning? Nothing can compare . . . perhaps because little else is blooming, or perhaps because the scent is sugary, never cloying, earthy yet light. Sense associations unfold as I breathe in their familiar smell.
I recall the first time I picked a bouquet of violets. My neighbor, a severe Scandinavian man, Mr. Nelson, had a whole bed planted with violets next to the street. The flowers received the perfect mix of morning sun and afternoon shade. In the rich soil, they grew large and fragrant. Not only blooming in traditional dark purple, he had white and pale lavender flowers.
I took piano lessons from him so I knew of his sternness, and dislike for frivolity. He would angrily chew on a cigar, while I butchered the current song I was trying to learn. So, I was cautious as I snuck to pilfer a bouquet of violets.
One Mother’s Day, early in the morning, I loaded my fists with a glorious mixture of white, purple, and lavender flowers. Then, I ringed the entire nosegay with the violet’s heart-shaped green leaves. As I was choosing the most pristine leaves, I felt a presence - eyes on my neck. I turned in a flash, and saw Mr. Nelson. “You know the more you pick the more they will bloom,” he said in a deep voice from across the yard. I was confused. Was he mad or glad? He continued, “Come and pick them anytime, dear,” and went back inside.
The next time I had piano lessons, Mr. Nelson had placed a small vase filled with violets on the table where he parked his ever present cigar. I struggled through the songs, and he chastised me for not practicing. “Let’s take a break,” he said. “So you like violets?” I nodded guiltily and told him they were my Mom’s favorites. “I too love violets.” He sat still, not licking his lips, but looking out the window. Being ten, I grew restless and fiddled with my lesson sheets.
He glanced at me and began speaking. “My mother died when I was young, in the darkest part of the Swedish winter. Night began at three, and lifted to a chilly grey for a few hours during the day.” He remembered, “My father expected me to continue my chores, which included milking and feeding our cows.” He continued, “I did not mind, the routine comforted me, and the cows seemed sympathetic when I cried.” I nodded, but wondered how was this connected to violets? I was happy to not be practicing the piano, so I did not ask.“That winter was endless. I could not eat or sleep, and I begged my father to take me to the doctor for the pain in my stomach, but he refused.” He shifted in his chair, and sighed. I saw a glimpse of the boy he had once been. “One dreary day, my aunt arrived, from her far away home. We were not expecting her.” He said, “She looked like my mother, and better yet, she held me and allowed me to cry in her arms.” He paused, “Then, she gave me a bouquet of violets.”
“She told me in Roman times violets symbolized mourning, memory, and affection for the dead.” He finished by saying, “And now whenever I smell violets I remember my mother and think how blessed I was to have her sweetness in my life.” He barked for me to get back to my lesson, and the moment vanished.
I still cannot play the piano, but I love violets, and when I smell them I think of my Mom, who died four years ago. I was thrilled to discover I could grow this beloved flower in my hot inland garden. The trick is to plant them where they receive shade all afternoon. I have a patch of clay soil which also helps them to thrive, because they love moisture.
To learn more about sweet violets (Viola odorata) visit this lovely site www.sweetviolets.com.