23 March 2001


A perfumed crop that

collectors will travel far and

wide to seek out is grown

on a South Devon farm.

Jacqueline Sarsby found

it is something of a shrine

for people with a passion

for violets

Joan Yardley is president of the International Violet Association. She grows 160 varieties of violet including Josephine (below left) and Pamela Zambra (bottom).

JOAN and Michael Yardley have that most fragrant of farms, a violet farm, in the heart of the Devon countryside. They started growing violets in 1995, and already the Devon Violet Nursery has the honour of holding a national collection of viola odorata and its cultivars, the sweet violets.

Joan has also been elected president of the International Violet Association, so the nursery is something of a shrine for people who are passionate about violets.

Such is the enthusiasm for violets, now, that the association holds international meetings, and has a web-site where members can exchange news about lost varieties and sulking seeds. Violet farming is booming, but it has undergone a revolution.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, up until the Second World War, hundreds of acres of sweet violets were grown in England for the cut-flower trade. Picked in the open fields, then bunched up and sent off in headily fragrant "violet trains" to Covent Garden market, they were destined for the office-workers buttonhole, or the ladys corsage. But although people sniffed and sighed over their delicate perfume, these violets had a fleeting existence, lucky if they were dropped into a glass of water at the end of the day.

All this has changed. Today, when violets travel, they are well rooted and comfortable in little nests of damp newspaper and polythene, tucked into cardboard boxes with as much care and packaging as a pound of handmade chocolates. You no longer see growers in headscarves and mittens, kneeling between rows of violets on a windy hillside, cutting their blooms. Now, they glide about in airy greenhouses, potting up their violets individually, grooming away the stolons or runners, and busily writing labels.

Prospective customers seek them out via the internet, or arrive, clutching the RHS Plant-finder. In general, people are not just looking for violets, but for named varieties with personal histories: "Where is Baronne Alice de Rothschild? I dont see her." (deep purple-blue, French, named in 1894). "Not in flower now? Well, what about Saint Helena?" (Delicate, pale blue. Napoleon, Empress Josephine and violets all go together.) "Maybe I should get a Parma violet. What is this DUdine?" (A very fragrant, double violet, blue-mauve with white centres, from Udine in Italy in the early 20th century).

Joan Yardley is one of the new kind of growers, happy to talk on television programmes and to magazine journalists, passionate about her violets, and catering for people who want to collect violets from all over the world. Every continent (unless it is covered in ice) seems to have its violets, although not all the violets are scented.

Joan and Michael recently counted that they had nearly 160 varieties of violet, from blue to purple, pink, white and even yellow flowers, including 30 species and also 12 varieties of Parma violet. The Parmas are sweet-smelling with lovely, glossy leaves and heavily-petalled, pompom-like flowers. Nobody is sure where they came from originally, maybe Persia, the Middle East, or North Africa, but they travelled, via Portugal, to Italy, France and by 1820 to England where, understandably, they like to live under glass. In the past, they have been wildly popular, but are scarcely known to the public today.

The scent of violets often evokes memories of childhood to passionate plantsmen and women, and it takes Joan Yardley back to her childhood. She at once sees the "At Homes" at a Methodist chapel in West Yorkshire, when she was 10 or 11 years old. There would be a concert and stalls with home-made produce: "My Uncle was a horticulturist, and he used to buy little bunches of violets at Manchester wholesale market. And my sister and I used to go about selling them on trays, at the At Homes." When Joan smells the perfume of the violet, it is the fragrance of the cut-flowers, sold in our cities for well over a century, which lingers in her memory.

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