The subject was violets

MY friend Jo recently presented me with an old book she'd bought at an antique mart. It was on violets, a subject that has held me in thrall for ages. In other words, I've had a lifelong love affair with violets. I've grown, picked, smelled, eaten, and cherished violets, researched, studied, and written about them for just about as long as I can recall. Jo, and other friends and acquaintances, as well as family members, knew it, and regularly chose thoughtful gifts for me featuring violets. There are violet-appliqu'ed towels, curtains, sheets, and cases in the linen closet, greeting cards, picture post cards, and stationery in my desk, place mats, potholders, napkins, and tablecloths in the kitchen, plants and plaques everywhere -- and cosmetics and jewelry trinkets on my dresser.

Not to mention books on violets. But one more was always welcome, and I sensed that someday Jo was going to pass that book on to me. It happened on the afternoon she stopped by and trailed me to the backyard, where the first spring things were showing and a delicate whiff of my violets drifted. Now, most people would say there isn't much of an odor to violets, but even at a distance Jo perceived it, looking down the bank at me -- kneeling to pick most carefully a bunch for the kitchen windowsill.

She accepted my invitation to gather a bouquet for herself (the more picked the more prolific they are, as any violet-lover knows). Then she went home and came back within the hour with that book. She handed it to me and said: ``This is something you should have had long ago. Enjoy it, as I have.''

So that's how this precious book on violets came to rest on a side table. It is replete with tributes, many of which I've never come across in all the books reference-marked. Its title is ``Stray Violets.'' (Gathered and pictured -- how lovingly -- by Mary E. Hart, published in 1893.) The frontispiece accompanies a typical spray with a quotation from Emerson: And dew-bent violets, fresh and new, an exhalation of our time.

There are poems by Goethe, Keats, Leigh Hunt, Heine, Lowell, Browning, Herrick, and Burns -- plus many another lesser-known poet ``whose songs gushed from his heart,'' as Longfellow recognized. Superimposed are gold line-drawings and exquisite full-page watercolors of purple and white, single and double violets offering delicious little sniffs of fragrance as you riffle through the pages. Gold-throated and beribboned, they nestle in their heart-shaped leaves.

I already knew a bit about violets. Such as Napoleon's connection. His adherents called him by the code name ``Papa la Violette'' while he was in exile. When he returned to Paris in the spring the ladies practically smothered him in violets, welcoming him back. The Indians called them ``heads entangled.'' The Greeks, Romans, and Persians revered them. Muhammad likened their excellence to his own, above all other perfections. St. Valentine is said to have pricked a message of faith on a violet leaf and sent it, via a white dove, to his followers to bolster their courage.

Violets, along with roses and lilies, are the most popular in the flower parade. Ancient minstrels were awarded gold violets in poetic contests, and they symbolized many attributes, such as constancy, humility, and truth. Shakespeare warned that ``to throw a perfume on the violet . . . is wasteful and ridiculous excess.''

Each year as the time of violets advances I enjoy them with every sense. I taste them (purple and green, high in Vitamin C in salads). I feel them (velvet and slim-stemmed as my fingers nip them off at ground level). And I certainly admire their (persistently perfumed) beauty. Lastly, and yes, I hear their voices, via Christina Rossetti, as they whisper from the shade . . . ``Men scent our fragrance on the air, Yet take no heed Of humble lessons we would read.''

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