An outstanding childhood memory is the large clump of violets on the south-side of the woodshed near the gate of my widowed mother’s cottage. During winter and spring when the plant was in full bloom when I came home from school and passed the patch I’d smell the gorgeous perfume.
At my two previous homes I established violet beds. When the flowers appeared I’d regularly pick bunches for Anne. The violet’s unique scent is based on a substance called ionine, which briefly dulls our sense of smell after the first sniff. Some argue that a picked violet loses its scent almost immediately. It doesn’t, it’s we who lose our sense temporarily. That’s why people coming into a room with a vase of violets comment on their fragrance, while those already there have lost it.
So unlike a sprig of daphne whose scent continues all the time, the violet’s scent hits you as you enter a room, seems to go while you are there, and returns only when you re-enter. Shakespeare knew this. In ‘Hamlet’, Laertes warns Ophelia that the hero is:
‘A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute:
A casualty of the recent storm was our violet bed. Clearing the oak bough that crashed onto it created a huge mess and destroyed most of the plants. Planning to continue a tradition one of the first things I did when we shifted here was to plant a violet. It took and began to spread. But alas my deteriorating health meant I can no longer continue the tradition of picking them. Ichabod!*
*Biblical – from the Book of Samuel: the glory that has departed.
The sentiment brings to mind a Yeats poem.
The Coming Of Wisdom With Time
Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.
William Butler Yeats