Violets in the Westcountry
The first West Country violets were sent up to Covent Garden in about 1891 from Dawlish in Devon. Prior to this violets were sold locally. The industry around Dawlish grew ‘Princess of Wales’ a French variety bred in the late nineteenth century. This had large perfumed flowers. The first violets were sent to market in corset boxes, before special wooden boxes were developed. The violet industry around Dawlish predated the Cornish industry, which probably developed by the 1920’s. Cornwall started to grow Governor Herrick, which produced longer stemmed darker blue flowers but with no scent. Occasionally boxes were sprayed with scent to cover this up! The 1920’s and 1930’s were the hay-day for violets, they were often worn as posies of fresh flowers. There were up to 200 acres growing around Dawlish employing many people during the winter months. By 1938 a special train were laid on to take the violets to London from Dawlish known as the ‘Violet Train’. There must have been stiff competition from Cornish Growers at this stage, as the Dawlish “Princess of Wales” violet association was formed and a marketing campaign run in association with the London Evening Standard. During the Second World War the land was requisitions for food production. Although the trade was revived it never really recovered to the prewar level. Fashions changed and the wearing of fresh posies declined. (1)
Violets in Cornwall
Two varieties were grown in the past in Cornwall , cv. Governor Herrick grown more commonly in Cornish conditions than cv. Princess of Wales. Governor Herrick does better in Cornish conditions and is more robust than Princess of Wales which has slightly larger perfumed flowers.
Violets one of the crops on a traditional Cornish smallholding. Joshia and Judith Eddie smallholders near Helston.
Joshia and Judith Eddies grow cv. Governor Herrick. The old crop is lifted at the same time as the ground is prepared in May around the time of Helston flora dance day (9th May) with manure or “dingle dung” . Violets are planted on an 18″x 18″ pattern created with a rake like instrument. The crowns are split up and small offshoots are replanted. Generally the crop has few disease problems, but some occasionally suffer from a crown rot.
Joshia next to his violet patch in 2008 and talking to Catherine Cutler from the Eden Project.
Plants start flowering in September, initially flowers are abnormal with three petals and these are discarded. The main flowering period is in November, when flowers can be the size of a 50p pieces. Plants produce their best flowers in damp muggy weather. Posies consist of 18 flowers. The Eddie’s uses 2 violet leaves in the bunch as decoration or ivy leaves after Christmas when the violet leaves have disappeared. Under favourable conditions 200 bunches can be picked in mild weather (800 maximum number of bunches picked). Picking and bunching is a laborious back-breaking job, it is not worth employing extra labour, but is better suited to a self-employed small holding enterprise. The picked flowers are bunched by Joshia and Judith in a shed. This is a slow part of the job, they bunch their flowers all facing the same way with the leaves at the back.
Joshia bunching violets November 2013
After Christmas stems are shorter and during cold dry weather flowers are smaller and less plentiful with anywhere between zero and fifty bunches being picked. Flowering goes on until the following May right up to the time of lifting. But by May it is not economical to pick the flowers.
The violets are packed in cardboard boxes and are given a spray of water to keep them damp. In the past violets were packed in cardboard boxes and the blooms were covered in tissue paper. One of the essential elements in keeping bunches fresh is to dip the flowers in water. If flowers are kept in a cool room and briefly dipped in water every day they should last for 5 days otherwise they will only last 3 days. Back in 1999 prices are good because there are fewer growers, farm gate prices were 20p a bunch. In the past it was not unknown for small holdings to be bought from the profits of violets.
These days the violets are sold directly by the Eddies at farmers markets, older people tend to be the main group buying them.
Other flowers traditionally harvested around the time of Helston Flora Dance.
Primroses In days gone by the school children also used to pick primroses from the woods and sell them at school, these days the flowers are left to be enjoyed in the woods. Joshia said when he was a youngster he made enough money from picking primroses to afford a new suit, how times change!
Lily of the Valley
This is a very important plant around Helston, where it is grown in gardens specifically for decoration on Helston Flora Day. Some participants have three fresh changes of flowers in their button holes during the day.
(1) (1996) Dawlish Violets for Queen Mary – Sweet Times winter 1996 6-7 The Dawlish Museum