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Viola Music:

Pansies and Violets

By Audrey Stallsmith

viola tricolor

Who are the violets now
That strew the lap of the new-come spring?

William Shakespeare: Richard II

The viola family includes both pansies and violets, the former most loved for their perky faces and the latter for their pretty perfume.

Our modern pansies are descendants of the wild viola tricolor or heartsease. The long string of nicknames for this plant includes love-in-idleness, call-me-to-you, three-faces-under-a-hood, godfathers and godmothers, flower o'luce, banwort, and jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me. The smaller violas are, in fact, often still referred to as johnny-jump-ups.

The flower was called herb trinitatis because its three colors were considered a symbol of the Trinity. As many of its other names indicate, heartsease, believed to be "purple with love's wound," was often employed as a love charm too. It caused a lot of romantic mischief in A Midsummer Night's Dream, since "the juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid/ Will make a man or woman madly dote/ Upon the next live creature that it sees."

A plucked upper petal might even foretell the lovers' future! Four veins meant hope, seven, constancy in love, eight, fickleness, nine, a change of heart, and eleven, disappointment in love and an early death.

The name "pansy" is derived from the French pensees or "thoughts," which remains the plant's meaning in the Language of Flowers. The drooping of the pansy's head in the evening or on gray days does not mean that it is lost in contemplation, however, but rather protecting its delicate countenance from dew or rain.

Heartsease, except for a few varieties like Bowles Black, has very little scent. But that lack is made up by its relative, viola odorata, or sweet violet. It was the favorite flower of Napoleon who, upon his banishment to Elba, promised to return with the violets. His partisans adopted the bloom as their symbol.

The violet symbolized modesty and faithfulness and, on a less happy note, the death of the young and innocent. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Laertes says of his dead sister, Ophelia, "And from her fair and unpolluted flesh/ May violets spring!" Before her untimely end, Ophelia herself seems to be mourning some loss of naivete when, after the killing of her father, Polonius, by her love, Hamlet, she laments, "I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died."

This association of the flower with death made violet as acceptable as black for mourning. If violets bloomed in the fall, a plague would surely follow. Even to dream of any flowers outside of their natural season was considered a bad omen!

A golden violet was awarded to the best bard in troubador contests. Wordsworth wrote of "A Maid whom there were none to praise/ And very few to love./ A violet by a mossy stone. . ."

Medicinally, violets have purified the blood, soothed ulcers, inflammations, and nervous headaches, and eased lung problems like asthma and bronchitis. Jethro Kloss used them, along with red clover and vervain, to treat cancer. John Heinerman considers violet syrup one of the best remedies for a sore or scratchy throat.

The leaves and blooms were occasionally added to salads. Do not consume the rhizomes, however, as they are emetic and may cause vomiting.

"Rub thy face with violets and goat's milk," an old Gaelic saying goes, "and there is not a prince in the world who will not follow thee." Considering the morbid and moody prince with whom Ophelia was burdened, that may be a mixed blessing!

Still, the duke in Twelfth Night compared the spirit of love to the sweet "sound" that breathes upon a bank of the flower. And famed gardener, Vita Sackville West, said she could almost enter into the feelings of Walter Savage Landor. That irascible writer, after tossing his cook out of a window, (presumably into a flower bed), is reputed to have exclaimed in horror, "Good God, I forgot the violets!"

Viola tricolor image is from Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.