The very fragrant Parma violet
Although they fell out of fashion in the past century, these well-behaved violets are making a comeback.
Parma violets are beautiful, relatively easy to grow, and, most of all, fragrant. Much favored about a hundred years ago, they fell out of fashion early in the 20th century when their winsome beauty was eclipsed by showier specimens. Now, with interest in heirloom plants on the rise, it is time for these elegant, beautiful violets to take center stage once more.Skip to next paragraph
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What makes a Parma violet different from other members of the viola family? Intense, “knock ’em dead” fragrance is the plant’s most prominent feature. In earlier times, when noxious odors were often unavoidable, the pervasive scent made Parmas especially popular for use in nosegays or small hand-held bouquets.
The leaves and flowers resemble those of many common backyard violets, except that the petals are usually doubled, making the individual blossoms look like small roses or pompons.
Like other violets, Parmas bloom in shades of purple, pinkish purple, or blue-purple. Some varieties also have white throats or contrasting petal edges. Conte di Brazza, often known as Swanley White, is the only Parma with pristine white blossoms.
Parma violets are also somewhat better mannered than other violet species. Since they rarely set seed, they are unlikely to become rampant when planted in outdoor beds.
The plants’ names – Duchess de Parme, D’Udine, Lady Elsington – are redolent of history and romance, as are the stories of the Parma’s origins.
Unlike other violet species, Parmas are unknown in the wild. Because they are not hardy in cold-weather climates, experts have speculated that they may have originated in warmer latitudes. Recent testing suggests that the Parmas might be descended from Viola alba, a species native to central Europe and the Mediterranean.
Wherever their journey began, the violets eventually migrated to Naples, Italy. They took a great leap forward in the late 19th century when a nobleman, Count Filippo di Brazza Savorgnan, began breeding them at his home near Udine in northeastern Italy. His efforts led to the Conte di Brazza violet, introduced in 1880 and still available today. The count, who was passionate about violets, also produced other popular hybrids.
Parma violets and their fragrant, single-flowered relative, Viola odorata, had their heyday from about 1870 through World War I. Many new varieties, often sports (or natural mutations) of older ones, appeared on the market.
Parma violet cut flowers became a commercial success as well. A New York Times article from 1892 refers to them as on sale in English florists’ shops. Another Times feature from 1905 describes an English society wedding where the attendants’ gowns were “the color of Parma violets,” evidently matching their bouquets, which were made up of the fragrant flowers.