The Often Violent History of Violets

The Often Violent History of Violets

“The violets in the mountains have broken the rocks.”  Tennessee Williams wrote in Camino Real. And in some tellings of the myth of Attis, the Phrygian god of vegetation, violets were thought to have grown from his suicidal blood-letting, driven mad after his nymph mistress was killed by his jealous lover Cybele, also, in some accounts, thought to be Attis’ mother.

How did a flower with such a storied past become the representative of the reticent and shy?  The origin of the phrase “shrinking violet” is debatable – while Merriam Webster claims it was first used in 1915, there are citations to its use as a figure of speech to describe a shy or introverted person from 1870, as found in the Pennsylvania newspaper The Titusville Herald.  The Phrase Finder describes its use in a “rather sarcastic article is about the New York businessman William Tweed, who was widely believed to have stolen large amounts of public money:  ‘…deputations of the tax payers of New York waiting upon Mr. Tweed with the title-deeds of their mansions and the shrinking violet Tweed begging them to pardon his rosy blushes. Can it be that he is a humbug?’”

(Can we talk about the origin of “humbug” next?)

If you plan to grow violets in your garden, find a lightly shaded spot, with moist soil, and deadhead often to keep the flowers blooming as long as possible.  Plant in the spring, as they thrive in cooler weather, and again in the fall.

Violets add gorgeous color to your garden or windowsill, and can be used as a garnish or to add flavor to certain foods.  I just learned that “the flowers and leaves of the cultivar ‘Rebecca,’ one of the Violetta violets, have a distinct vanilla flavor with hints of wintergreen.” Have you ever used sweet violets in your kitchen in cakes or to make jam?   Ever tried to make violet extract with vodka? If you’re ready to play with your pansies, take a look at the recipes for for candied violets, simple violet syrup, and violet martinis on What’s Cooking in Your World.  Share your stories and recipes over on Twitter: @RebeccaSnavely @TheCityFarm!

(Photo Credit: What’s Cooking in Your World)