Your Guide to Parma Violets

For centuries, parma violets were popular in medicine as anti-inflammatory or anti-epileptic.

They were also part of Christian symbolism, in which violets were a symbol of the Virgin Mary, humility, and restraint. The first historical records of the use of violets as ornamental and aromatic plants are from Greece.

For example, in the Odyssey (12th century BC), the garden surrounding the cave of the nymph Calypso is where “soft grasses of celery and violet bloomed”. Centuries later, the poet Píndaro (5th century BC) refers to the beginning of spring, writing: “the fragrant flowers bring the spring of sweet fragrance. Then the lovely tufts of violets sprout on the immortal land”. And, also, in a poem by Sappho (6th century BC): “you maidens, for the beautiful gifts of the Muses, of violet girded.”

Origins And Historical Facts

There are several hypotheses as to the plant’s origin. A 16th-century Italian treatise mentions violets with numerous petals that grew around Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), the former capital of the Byzantine Empire, and compares these violets to miniature roses with many petals.

Parma violets were very popular at the end of the 19th century, in Europe and on the East Coast of the USA. Then, there were hundreds of producers who  supplied the markets of the great European metropolis (Paris, London, Rome, Berlin, Saint Petersburg, etc.) and North American (especially New York).

There were three major production centers in France: on the outskirts of Paris, in Toulouse, and on the French Riviera.

Botany

Violets belong to the genus Viola (family Violaceae). It has about 400 species, 91 in Europe and 15 in Portugal alone. Its seeds have an elaiosome, an external nutritive structure rich in oil, designed to attract insects (in general, ants). They transport the seeds to their nests or other places and, in this way, promote their dispersion.

Parma violets correspond to a well-defined morphological group belonging to the species Viola alba Besser. Usually, they can produce fragrant flowers for about seven months.

Old fashioned violet sweets

The Flowers

The flowers can have more than 30 petals and have a unique and delicate fragrance. Its leaves (in the shape of a heart) are smaller and more robust than other varieties.

Violets In Perfumery

They sold the flowers in bouquets or crystallised and, they extracted the essential oil from the leaves. The oil was very popular in the perfume industry, almost all located in the French town of Grasse.

At the end of the 19th century, the perfume industry also started to use ionone, replacing the essential oil of violet because of its similar fragrance. However, they initially obtained it from the rhizomes of lilies. Even today, you can buy dehydrated and pulverized lily rhizomes (orris root) to give the natural aroma of violet to potpourris.

Parma Violets And Aristocracy

In the United Kingdom, during the Victorian era, parma violets were closely linked to the aristocracy. The gardens of Windsor Castle housed about 3000 pots kept for the cultivation of three violet types, two of which were violet-de -parma (Marie Louise and Lady Hume Campbell). Even today, the Queen of England is very fond of violet bouquets.

Violets Today

Currently, in Toulouse, there are still some producers, but bouquets with violets are very rare. Almost all production is for the sale of potted plants. The Municipality of Toulouse organises, annually, at the beginning of February, a Violet Festival and tries to keep the tradition alive, even having a Confraternity of Violets.

In the past, parma violets were crystallised, but this practice has now pretty much disappeared. Currently, the crystallised violets on the market are actually standard violets (Viola odorata L.). Their production happens mostly in the small village of Tourrettes-Sur-Loup, on the outskirts of Nice.

There, you can find the last European farmers who dedicate themselves almost exclusively to the production of violets.

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