Spring in Northumberland isn't very far advanced yet, and I am swamped with work, so this morning I took a detour via the Garden Centre on the way back from the bank, and bought two deliciously scented sweet violets (viola odorata) - I wish Blogger had a scratch-and-sniff function, because they are quite delectable. They will do nicely to assuage my immediate need for spring flowers. With luck, they should also self-seed themselves around the place, which would be delightful.
In the tapestry series The Hunt of the Unicorn, one of the flowers surrounding the captive unicorn is viola odorata, because the sweetly-scented blooms are symbolic of fertility:
and in the Herbal, Gerard says:
very many by these Violets receive ornament and comely grace: for there be made of them Garlands for the heade, nosegaies and poseies, which are delightfull to looke upon and pleasant to smell to...Gardens themselves receive by these the greatest ornament of all, chiefest beautie, and most gallant grace; and the recreation of the mind which is taken heere by, cannot be but verie good and honest...They amongst our oldest medicinal plants, containing salicylic acid among the active constituents, and were used by the Athenians "to procure sleep", while the Anglo-Saxons used sweet violet as a wound-herb and a cosmetic. The Romans made wine with the flowers, and of course they have long been used in perfumery. Crystallized violets were a popular delicacy, and in the time of Charles II "violet sugar" was a favourite. The leaves can be used in salads (although they have a laxative effect) and were used in poultices. You could try using the fresh leaves on bruises, for a cooling and soothing compress. Or, if you like a seriously sophisticated treat, what about these?
To crystallize violets, dip the flowers in beaten eggwhite, or paint the flowers with a small brush. Then dip them into caster sugar, or sprinkle it over them if the flowers are very delicate. You can do the same with primrose flowers to make pretty decorations for an Easter or simnel cake.