Sunday, March 13, 2011

Fair Maids and Shrinking Violets...

A recent walk in the woods led along paths shrewn with blanched fallen leaves, dried-up grasses and lined by bracken fronds in the undergrowth.

 Meanwhile the trees and thickets were draped with Old Man's Beard, floating like ethereal patches of smoke or mist seen from a distance...

Branches were clad in vibrant lichen and clumps of moss had jacketed rocks and logs like crazy natural insulation. 

On the outskirts of the woods white pockets of snowdrops had appeared in typically shady places, scattered below the trees and nearby hedges. The relative darkness and seclusion of these discreet sites seem to make the white of the flowers even brighter.
The very presence of the snowdrops seems all the more surprising when we stumble across them with childlike amazement. This year I paid more attention to the flowers after having listened to a radio programme describing the huge world of this seemingly modest little plant and the enthusiasm it fires during the cold winter months - and beyond. The field of the 'Galanthophile', these confirmed amateurs of the snowdrop - the Galanthus - is indeed very widespread and seems to be addictive since the diversity seems to belie the humble elegance of this flower that braves the harshest winter elements.

The biological name for the genus Galanthus comes from the Greek gala, meaning 'milk', referring of course to the white colour (cf. the Milky Way - the Galaxy), and then anthus for 'flower'.

However, snowdrops are also referred to as 'Fair Maids of February' and 'Christmas Bells' (some varieties emerge in December), but  with its 19 Galanthus species and 150 cultivars (cultivated to enhance specific features) there is no shortage of name to reflect different characteristics.... Bright Eyes, Ding Dong, Green Finch, Grumpy, Heffalump, Three Ships Come Sailing, Blewbury Tart, Padoga, Ophelia, Magnet, Reginae Olgae of Greece (in honour of Prince Philip's grandmother) are just some..... Although not widely known for its perfume, the snowdrop does have a honey scent that can be magical and this too, not surprisingly, is greatly appreciated by the galanthophile.
Snowdrops in our garden

Cultivars offer green or even yellow-tipped tepals (inner petals) of differing patterns, a variety of shade and shape for the outer petals - from extrovert upturned types, to gentle parachute forms or shy-and-retiring 'droopers'; from burlesque furling double petals like petticoats which contrast with more austere blooms that look like a nun's wimple! The basic snowdrop is the Galanthus Nivalis, said to have its origins in the Balkans, and introduced to England in the 17th century. Soldiers in the Crimean war also brought plants back with them and the Victorians were so entranced by the perceived innocence and purity of the snowdrop that a conference was devoted to the plant in 1891. However, the snowdrop has a far older and much richer symbolism  than that conferred to it by Victorian Britain. In Homer's Odyssey, Mercury (Hermes) supplied Ulysses with a herb Moly ( the Galanthus) to shield him from the poison used by the witch Circe to lead men to a state of amnesia and finally perdition. It is now recognised that the snowdrop contains the alkaloid Galanthamine which may act as an neuralgesic and could be beneficial to sufferers of Alzheimer's disease..... In Christianity the snowdrop represented the passing of sorrow - the harshest seasons of life, just as it reflects the end of the cold winter months. It is said that an angel turned falling snowflakes into flowers to give to Adam and Even after they were cast from the Garden of Eden. For others, however, the snowdrop could be seen as an unlucky force as many white flowers were considered to represent death and as such could not be brought into the house...

Today the snowdrop is so sought after that a bulb recently fetched a price of £350 - a little reminiscent of the Tulip Fever that gripped 17th century Holland. These fluctuations in popularity and perception also remind me of another winter flower, that is also to be found scattered in the undergrowth and on grassy banks... the violet. Whilst the snowdrop catches our attention with its long-stemmed elegance and its demurely bowed head it is always the violet that really catches my breath. Clustered together the violets seem modest in their colouring - the beautiful purple isn't immediately apparent - but then it is set off by the vibrant green of the young heart-shaped leaves.
Then the flower seems to play an optical illusion on your eyes which suddenly become aware of just how many purple-blue flecks are scattered out in front of you. All the other violet clumps surrounding the first one that your vision detected lead your eyes on and on as if looking over a vast piece of woven cloth bearing rich threads, here and there, that pick up the light and draw you in. The rich colour of the flower changes from dense majestic purple to flashes of a vibrant blue shade, all of which assumes a more modest tone when you examine the flowerhead at close quarters when the humble simplicity of the petal shape and the yellow-flecked centre seem to contrast the depth and variation of colour.
Of the same family as the Pansy and the Viola, there are hundreds of violet species worldwide and even if it is often associated with mild Northern Hemisphere zones it can be found in more extreme, far-flung places such as the Andes and Australia. Needless to say, with a bit of British chauvinism I always think of the violet as being intrinsically linked to all things English, but that of course is an illusion. The violet is the flower symbol for several states in the U.S, such as Rhode Island and Illinois and is so prevalent that it is sometimes regarded as a weed!  Moreover the violet isn't necessarily even purple-blue as the jaunty yellow varieties attest.
Pansies and violets from the garden.
Just as the violet seems to defy boundaries, visual and geographical, it always seem to operate a certain magic on our sense of smell too. Valued for its sweet scent, the violet odorata has been used as the base for innumerable perfumes of varying prestige. The very names themselves conjure up a certain magic.... Après L'Ondée by Guerlain; Violette Précieuse, Caron; Violette Divine, Berdoues are just a few...

Parma violets and those of Toulouse are often cited but England also cultivated the flower, to the extent that at the beginning of the 20th century trains would run from Dawlish in Devon to London to supply Convent Garden Market - memorably seen with Audrey Hepburn's violet seller in My Fair Lady.
Here's a clip of Miss Eliza Doolittle singing 'Wouldn't it be loverly?'
My first encounter with violet scent was a little less glamourous and was more of a cheap-and-cheerful nature - namely the Cornish Violet type that targeted tourists, presumably the same ones who bought effigies of the Cornish Pixie (me!). The perfume in question was presented in a small bottle decorated with a bright purple bow that set off the suspect vibrant green colour of the scent. The smell was perhaps predictably sweet, sickly and cloying - impossibly so - but what really floored me years later was that the real flower really does have a very similar perfume, it wasn't just some synthetic concoction.

On the actual flower this sweet scent seems to be in total brazen defiance of the violet's modest size and the harsh conditions of the flowering season - with very few insects to attract (but irresistible to ants) and this gives the plant a mesmerizing quality. My rather limited experience of  manufactured violet scent has led me to feel simultaneously attracted and slightly repelled in a see-saw motion that leaves me queasy so that I can never quite define my opinion of it. I think I will buy another bottle of the Cornish perfume this summer (although I may give the pixie a miss this time!)...
The defiant, enigmatic aspect of the violet does not end there as it has been remarked that the flower possesses the chemical ionone that can temporarily alter our olfactory capacity - literally the performance of our nose receptors. From its surprisingly heady perfume, the violet suddenly assumes a modest, virtually scent-free presence as it plays with our senses in a capricious, most un-shrinking violet way.
Despite the virginal innocence it was later thought to represent the violet was the symbol of Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, and more notably her son Priapus ( yes, that one!); likewise in Hindu mythology the flower had a grip on sexuality itself as it symbolised the phallus of the God Shiva.
Pale lilac violets and celandines.

This same alluring, elusive nature of the violet's grasp was often reflected when the flower was used by Gods to draw in or hold onto the female object of their desire, be they consenting or otherwise. Zeus created the violet to give to his lover Io before turning her into a heiffer, a clever shape-shifting ploy to disguise their relationship and so in theory (only) avoid the suspicious eyes of his wronged consort Hera. Meanwhile Hades, God of the Underworld, lured Persephone to the depths of the earth using violets to entice her.
This duality in the flower's imagery is reflected in the writings of Freud who is said to have seen an association between violets, and sexual violence (viol), both words based on the Greek word for the flower - io. The emblem of the violet for love and power are combined in the figure of Napoleon for whom the flower was used as a secret code for his planned spring-time return from the Isle of Elba, and the image of his love for Josephine. In addition to this, the pure violet was also linked to remarkably bloody events. It  was associated with Attis, a seasonally-dying god who was left to bleed to death, and was also the symbolic flower of St Valentine who was persecuted and executed in the 14th century. It perhaps comes as no surprise then that the notion of death was pursued in Christianity. However the violet gradually changed again to become symbol of mourning as the flower's colour was reputed to have been transformed from its  initial white to purple through the tears of the Virgin Mary. A virginal innocence was conveyed in many Christian paintings as the violet was used to symbolize the Immaculate Conception. This was partly due to the violet's capacity for self-fertilisation - thus purity (due to the cleistogamus process wherein it is the late-season flowers that reproduce through self-pollination).
Pedro with Forget-me-nots and Violets.
Continuing this shift in perception the violet started to assume its shrinking, unassuming aspect, becoming the symbol of Our Lady's modesty and humility - an image that was embraced by the Victorians - for whom it was a sign of purity of love and spirituality. However the dangerous duality was never far...In Madame Bovary, the purple prose of Flaubert conveys the platitudes of Emma Bovary's life and more particularly the futility and irony of her attempts to flee it and enter the violet tones of her imagined, sensorially-heightened world. When Emma's lover, Léon, buys her a bouquet of violets the act becomes one of empty gesturing, and one which reflects the shallowness of sentiment..."He puffed up with pride, as if this hommage that was destined for another (Emma) turned itself back towards him". On her death bed, Emma sees the violet material of the priest's robe and feels "the lost voluptuousness of her first mystic thoughts" and yet her death is devoid of all spirituality and is of base physicality.
For me the violet simply has a magical duality, an image of hope and all things positive yet with a touch of sadness too. I found a single violet, against all odds, on the day my cat died and decided to see it as a message that life still goes on, and beauty with it. And so now, just as Pedro before him, our new kitten readily nibbles the heads off any violets that make their way into the house. Life indeed goes on.
And to end here's the famous song by Billie Holiday, Violets for My Furs, although I do prefer my furs to be wrapped around the living animal they were intended for...

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