Heralds of Spring
JANE TAYLOR (1783–1824)
Down in a green and shady bed,
A modest violet grew;
Its stalk was bent, it hung its head
As if to hide from view.
And yet it was a lovely flower,
Its colour bright and fair;
It might have graced a rosy bower,
Instead of hiding there.
Lincolnshire is home to several varieties of violet, which enrich gardens and countryside. Rosey Norton finds they also make for wonderful decorations, perfumes and flavours.
The sweet violet pushes its scented flowers above the cold, dark winter’s ground. The little flower blankets the roadsides and verges with delicate shades of purple, pink and white, with bright green leaves.
The sweet violet (Viola odorata) is for most people the violet of spring, although there are several species growing wild in the UK. It begins its spring journey in February and flowers through until May. A delicate scent pervades the air when this little bloom is crushed or brushed against. Growing on the sides of roads or at the edges of woods, varying hues of pink, violet and white can spring up. Lincolnshire is lucky to have various species of violet, enriching the countryside.
The hairy violet (Viola hirta) shows itself at the same time as the sweet violet but has distinctive, heart-shaped leaves, fine hairs and is unscented. It can be found on chalk and limestone grassland. The flowers are usually paler and it doesn’t have runners, unlike the sweet violet. Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust sites are home to quite a few chalk grasslands. The Lincolnshire Wolds are limestone rich grasslands and along the verges and the chalk hills is where you are most likely to spot this special little plant.
Dog-violets (Viola riviniana), are widespread and can often take over a patch of ground. They flower from March to May and are a food source to the fritillary butterflies and are often hybridised. A subspecies of the dog-violet is the Wood Dog-violet (Viola reichenbachiana) which is smaller and has slightly more pointed leaves. Dog-violets, along with sweet violets are found in gardens, verges and graveyards throughout the county. A fine display can be spotted at the wonderful Crowland Abbey or the verges of Blankney every year. If you wish to get out and about to spot the dog-violet, Snipe Dales Reserve, near Spilsby has a good display of the white and purple variants near its small car park.
The marsh violet (Viola palustris) is widespread and grows in boggy conditions and woods, where its pale flowers appear April to July. It is a pretty little species, often overlooked by the bigger, bolder flowers of spring and early summer. It can be found in Kirkby Moor, Woodhall Spa and is well worth the walk.
There are more than 100 different cultivated varieties, varying from pale violet and pink, to white, yellow, speckled, with purple leaves and double flowered.
Violets have a place in folklore and were believed to have medicinal properties, thought to be used to make a tea to combat colds and lymphatic disorders. This was also used for skin disorders. A favourite with the Victorians, it was symbolic of modesty and used to pass on secret messages to their loved ones.
To ancient Greeks, the little flower played an important part in their myths. The violet was a favourite in ancient Greece and became the symbol of Athens. Iamus was a son of Apollo and the nymph Evadne. He was abandoned by his mother at birth. She left him lying in the Arkadian wilds on a bed of violets where he was fed honey by serpents. Eventually, he was discovered by passing shepherds who named him Iamus after the violet (ion) bed.
The goddess Persephone and her companion nymphs were gathering rose, crocus, violet, iris, lily and larkspur blooms in a springtime meadow when she was abducted by the god Hades.
Violets, both dog-violets and sweet violets, play a large part in my spring cake decorations. Carefully select and wash the flowers and lay out on kitchen paper, dip in egg white then caster sugar, leave to dry and use to decorate cakes, sweets etc.
I have wonderful memories of spending time with my grandmother in her kitchen, crystallising the delicate blooms. Pretty variations can be created by using the various new colours appearing on the market and are a must-have in my edible flower garden. Memories were made with the sweet taste of violets, from an old fashioned favourite sweet or my personal favourite violet cremes, to the sweet scent of violet perfume found in many traditional perfumes and soaps. Violet oil is still often used in expensive perfumes, often providing the base for more frequently used fragrances such as rose. A year long reminder of the delicate scent of spring.
Pick a selection of colours if possible. Place egg white in one saucer and caster sugar in another. Wash and remove stems of violets, leave to dry. Dip the flower in the egg white and shake off the excess, dip in to the caster sugar and place on a clean board to dry. Store in an airtight container and use as soon as possible.
• 2 to 3 cups loosely packed violet blooms
• the juice of one large lemon
• 2½ cups boiling water
• 3½ cups of jam sugar (with pectin)
Wash the flowers and place in a heatproof jar or jug, add boiling water and allow to steep until the water goes a dark blue (hard water or violet soft water). Add the lemon juice to bring the colour back to violet. Allow the liquid to drain through a cloth or sieve to remove any leaves or petals. Place the liquid in a pan and bring to the boil. Add the jam sugar (or pectin and sugar) and boil until it stiffens on a spoon or if using a sugar thermometer, until it reaches jam heat. Place in clean, clear jars. Keeps for six months, lovely with scones! (Note: This recipe is also wonderful using rosebay willowherb later in the season, which is a lovely jewelled pink.)
Places to purchase the edible, cultivated violets in Lincolnshire:
Thoresthorpe, Alford LN13 0HX
They sell over twenty varieties of cultivated violets and are extremely helpful.
Millstone Garden Centre
Waltham, Grimbsy DN37 0HQ
Seeds and plants of the wild varieties can be purchased just over the border in Nottinghamshire at:
Coach Gap Lane, Langar, Nottinghamshire NG13 9HP
For places to visit the wild flowers, contact:
Lincolnshire Wildlife Trusts
Banovallum House, Manor House Street, Horncastle, Lincolnshire LN9 5HF
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