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Written by:  Peter Robinson, AVS Horticultural Advisor © 2000 All Rights Reserved

Volume 1, Number 1
Winter 2000
On line Version


Wild Violets Versus Their Cultivated Offspring

            Some short time ago, a lively discussion developed on the OneList Sweet Violets Forum  ( the merits or otherwise of wild violets that appear in lawns and gardens. To some of the participants of this forum, these wild violets were a nuisance, and needed to be eradicated.  Why?   Because these violets had the audacity to grow amongst the perfect greensward of the lawn or perhaps these wild violets were deemed inferior to the cultivated forms we actively discuss on this forum.

            Both forms of the violet deserve equal status and should be grown side by side to increase the available range of violets for the enthusiast.  However, we do not always see this.   In order to explain the importance of both types of violets we will take a lightening sprint through the history of violets.

            Violets have been a revered flower for thousands of years.  In fact, they are one of the trinity of flowers along with the Rose and the Lily, and one of the earliest written accounts of the violet and its cultivation comes from Ancient Greece, where it is said violets were cultivated in plantations at Attica (outside Athens) around 400 B.C.  The Romans also cultivated violets.  They made violet wine and used them in a variety of ceremonies, as did many of the civilizations throughout history.  Until fairly recently, all of these cultivated violets were gathered from the wild, and I suspect they were little different from their native cousins.

            By the 18th century all this was to change.  A group of market gardeners in France realized that the gathering of violets from woodland and hedgerow was potentially a big money maker and so it was that around 1755 the first “nurseries” for the violet were set up with wild stocks.  Over the next few years these early entrepreneurs quickly realized that selection was the key to success and ‘Quatre Saisons’ was introduced as the first cultivated violet starting a race throughout Europe and later, North America.  These gardeners bred bigger and better violets, and the heyday of the violets lasted for nearly 200 years fueling a massive cut flower, perfume and confectionery industry that spread throughout the world.

            The moral of this tale is that we need to respect the value of both forms of violet.  For those who actively collect violets and wish to expand the available range of cultivars, wild violets are a necessity.  They are used as a stock of genetic material to refresh and renew cultivated violets for the next generation of violet growers, our children. 


Note 1: 
             Violets were sold in bunches in the markets of Paris from around the beginning of the 19th century.  They had been deliberately planted in “beds” from 1750 with the intention of growing them for sale.  Before this, they had been gathered in the woods surrounding Paris for herbal medicines, for drying and for making pomades and other uses.  It was during the middle of the 18th century that “commercial” growers around Paris realized that money could be made from violets, and between 1750 and 1780 the wild violets were grown commercially and selections made from them.  These were knownas ‘quatre saisons’ (four seasons) violets.  There were selected for their different colors amongst other things.  The town of Vincennes, Charenne, Bagnolet, Saint-Cloud, and Massy Palaseou were involved in this early flower production, with the main center at Fresnesles Rungis, and this later moved to the south of Paris to what is today regarded as the traditional home of the violet, namely Chatenay, Bourg la Reine and Fontenay aux Roses.  It would be some years before other violets upstaged the ‘Quatre Saisons’ at the markets, though it should also be noted that in the South of France, early forms of the Parma violet were already being grown.

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