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Our History: Violets, wildflowers gentle reminders of past

There is a magic in remembering. I picked a bouquet of violets today, those shy, ephemeral harbingers of summer, and with that simple task came a haunting nostalgia for the days I knew long ago. Peeping so modestly from their shady corner beneath the privet hedge, they were almost hidden from sight and I nearly missed them. When I spied them this morning, memories of happy childhood springtimes flooded back to me.

As a youngster growing up in a Bayside that was really “country-like,” violets were profuse and evident and heralded for me the glories and freedom of the summer season, and wonder at their simple beauty has not ceased for me. Every April I await their coming as they emerge shyly out of their cluster of heart-shaped leaves. One day it is harsh, wintry, gloomy and cold, and then suddenly there are my messengers forecasting the coming of summer. I am transported back to those days of my youth when their miraculous entry into view lightened my heart and lifted my spirits, signaling the glorious promise of days to come.

Violets and many other native wildflowers were much in evidence in those days and I was free to pluck a bouquet of violets from the fragrant carpets of purple that covered so many places in the neighboring woods, fields, and shady corners of our garden.

I came by my love of violets quite naturally, for they were among my mother’s favorite flowers. I remember her telling me about a nosegay of violets she received from my father when they were courting in 1918, and they remained dear to her heart from that time on.

Not only violets, but buttercups, snapdragons, black-eyed Susans, blue flowering chicory, daisies and the lilies which grew by the wayside, which we called “tiger-lilies,” as well as the scented blooms of wild roses and blackberries beguiled the eye and were a bountiful gift of nature any child could enjoy. We could gather them for the taking to bring to school or present them as a gift of love to a friend or parent.

In later years, my mother-in-law introduced me to a charming custom she called her “morale bouquet.” Every day in spring and summer she assembled a small cluster of flowers in an appropriate receptacle, be it a tiny vase, spooner, tea cup or an odd pitcher, and placed it on the center of her kitchen table, a reminder that brightened the hours of her daytime chores.

Since that time, for more years than I can remember, I have carried on Mom’s custom, and it lightens my day and evokes precious memories of her kitchen, the center of a warm and nurturing home, the home in which my husband grew up and which shaped him and made him the caring, loving and sensitive man he was throughout his life.

Violets are herbaceous plants and were recognized from time immemorial for many of their curative qualities, as well as for their beauty. In 1260, the famous theologian Bartholomeus Angelicus, who ranked in his time with Roger Bacon and Thomas Aquinas, wrote an original treatise on herbs. In his manuscript, “De Proprietatibus Rerum,” which was a source of common information on the natural history at the time, he described the violet as, “floures of spryngtygne tyme fyrste and sheweth somer,” aptly pointing out that this springtime flower foreshadowed summer.

The modest violet has been celebrated in poetry and romance since ancient times. Last night I leafed through a number of anthologies and found reference to it by Fletcher, Spenser, Skelton, Tennyson, Shelley and Kingsley. Wordsworth described it as:

A violet by a mossy stone,

Half hidden from the eyes,

Fair as a star,

When only one is shining

In the sky.

The violet, as Wordsworth observed, hides its beauty amidst grass and shadow, and flowers ever so fleetingly, and in the “language of flowers” stands for modesty. Its color is said to indicate the “truth of love” and also is emblematical of “faithful love.”

When Napoleon was banished to Elba, he told his followers that he would return “with the violets.”

“Corporal Violet” became a favorite toast of his followers.

Theories abound about the origin of the violet’s name, but most attribute it to Greek legend as the flower of Zeus. The story relates that in order to protect a beloved maiden from the wrath of his wife, Hera, Zeus changed the girl into a beautiful calf and ordered her fed with delicacies. Thus he commanded the earth to bring forth a lovely flower in her honor which he named “Ion,” the Greek word for Viola.

The Victorians were much enamored of violets, and hawkers selling baskets of violets were common in Covent Garden and on the street corners of London in the 19th century. It was a favorite motif in china painting and book illustration.

The violet’s aromatic scent has been desired through the ages, and its medicinal qualities as an herb were known since ancient times. Culpepper’s “The Complete Herbal” was published in 1649 and described the violet as harmless and possessing several medicinal properties. Modern herbalists have reviewed and altered his assessments, but it still is considered useful in some instances. Culpepper was an astrologer-physician and so named the violet “a plant of Venus.”

Violets no longer are in profusion. They are disappearing fast, as are other wildflowers, with the mania for encroaching on open spaces. The meadows and mossy glades of my childhood are being decimated.

More importantly, I note from this paper’s Letters to the Editor that residents of our area share my concern that there are too many despoilers of our natural heritage by those who have no respect for the quality of life we have been fortunate to enjoy over the years. We deplore their disregard for the appearance and the greening of our community.

Where will the children of tomorrow gather to play and learn to create, appreciate nature, and stimulate their imaginations without a backyard to call their own? Where will there be lawns and gardens and trees? And where will there be an outdoor haven of privacy for family life?

Imposing themselves upon our communities are unnecessarily huge and incongruous structures that replace the once charming homes in our neighborhoods that were part of a harmonious entity that reflected the stories of our towns. A case in point, for example, is the intrusion of such inappropriate homes in historic Week’s Woodland in Bayside.

It appears the time for action is almost past. Not all neighborhoods can claim a right to become a historic district, but proper local zoning could alleviate the problem if enough of us care to work together for a better future.

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is an historian, free-lance writer, and a member of the Borough President’s History Advisory Committee.

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