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Wild Violets: Rethinking Eliza Doolittle’s Favorite Flower

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Wild Violets: Rethinking Eliza Doolittle’s Favorite Flower

January 8, 2018

Perhaps you consider violets a weed, if you’ve ever had them take over your lawn or garden, but sweet violets used to be a mainstay of the floral industry. From the 1800s into the 1930s and ’40s, florists would grow their own violets in greenhouses attached to their shops. Violet sellers sold the little bundles on the street (think: Eliza Doolittle).

Varieties such as the Parma violet had longer stems, more suitable to flower arranging. With only one remaining commercial violet farm in the US, violets as cut flowers are incredibly rare to see in the United States these days. Their short vase life (from two to three days) makes them unviable for a commercial product.

But in Lisbon, Portugal where I live, old traditions linger. Seasonality dictates everything from menus to flower selections, and from December until February violets are still sporadically available in flower shops across the city. The violets are wild and and grow in forests and meadows on the outskirts of Lisbon, where they are picked by violet gatherers (an 80-year-old man rumored to be among them).

Having had an obsession with violets since I was young, I couldn’t be more thrilled to find them:

Photography and styling by Chelsea Fuss.

Violets have always been sold in tight little bundles with leaves around the edges.
Above: Violets have always been sold in tight little bundles with leaves around the edges.

Incredibly fragile: handle the violets with care, and when arranging them, even after taking apart the bundle, use them in groups, to offer more support to the incredibly thin stems. (Keep them in a cool, ideally dark place for the longest-lasting bouquets.)

 Carefully and gently re-cut the stems with scissors and make sure the vases are full to the top.
Above: Carefully and gently re-cut the stems with scissors and make sure the vases are full to the top.
 Using the flowers with their greenery offers support and and the contrast of the flowers against the leaves shows off the deep purple blossoms.
Above: Using the flowers with their greenery offers support and and the contrast of the flowers against the leaves shows off the deep purple blossoms.
 Above: As much as I love violets, they can be a bit tricky to style, tending toward a looks that&#8
Above: Above: As much as I love violets, they can be a bit tricky to style, tending toward a looks that’s overly Victorian or saccharinely sweet. To give violets a more modern context, I paired them with a new vase by Portuguese ceramist Sofia Albuquerque (available through Noto Lisboa)

The vase echoes the organic shapes of the violets’ blossoms and stems.

I left two of the bundles together and then added taller violets and leaves in between to offer more space. The result is a blowsy, airy, and fragrant bouquet perfect for a bedside table or bath.
Above: I left two of the bundles together and then added taller violets and leaves in between to offer more space. The result is a blowsy, airy, and fragrant bouquet perfect for a bedside table or bath.
 Additionally, I let another bouquet hang out in a modern cement vase, with a hint of gray.
Above: Additionally, I let another bouquet hang out in a modern cement vase, with a hint of gray.
 The little bundles are so sweet to have around the house, or to offer as a gift.
Above: The little bundles are so sweet to have around the house, or to offer as a gift.
 Letting the bouquet hang out over the side, or using a vase where you can see the stems, creates a more modern look for the violets.
Above: Letting the bouquet hang out over the side, or using a vase where you can see the stems, creates a more modern look for the violets.
  The tiny, wavy stems add to the appeal.
Above:  The tiny, wavy stems add to the appeal.

N.B.: Here are more of our friendly woodland flowers to invite into your garden:

Finally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for violets with our Violets: A Field Guide.

Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various perennial plants with our Perennials: A Field Guide.

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