Say it with violets

7th February 2006, Comments 0 comments

If you want to declare your love with flowers in France, don't send roses. Here, the flower of lovers is the lovely violette. Or, at least, so they will tell you in Toulouse. Alexandra Lesieur reports on this horticultural tradition.

The sweet-smelling violet, whose delicate fragrance still hints at a bygone era, is undergoing a modern makeover imparting its subtle perfume to everything from candies to candles to liquors.

In Toulouse, the southern French city which has taken the tiny flower as its symbol since the 14th century, local fans of violets — said to be the flower of lovers but also of eternal regret — are hoping more growers and buyers will fall under its spell.


A bouquet for your beloved from La Maison de la Violette

This capital of the Midi-Pyrénées region just celebrated its annual International Congress of Violets, staged every year in February aiming to generate more interest in and research into the fragile flower.


"Let's say there are fewer producers than there used to be, and we are trying to interest young horticulturists to come and perhaps grow violets alongside other winter production," said Hélène Vié, president of the show's organisers, Les Amis de la Violette.

Les violettes de Toulouse

After one producer shut down in the region, there are seven remaining growers of the violette de Toulouse — a trademarked strain of the parma violet with about 40 medium-purple, double and highly fragrant blossoms, which is only grown locally.

Along with other more common varieties such as the viola odorata, or sweet violet which is native to the region, it is used in the perfume industry as well as in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, confectionery and cooking.

The origins of the parma violet are shrouded in mystery, as none have ever been found in the wild, although they have been in cultivation for several hundred years.

One legend says a young soldier once brought back a luscious bed of violets for his sweetheart from a tour of duty in Italy. She lovingly planted the flowers and they flourished like none other.

Although they fell out of fashion in the 1970s, violets have been undergoing a mini renaissance in the past 15 years among horticulturists as well as craftsmen.

The business of flowers


Violets show up everywhere, including in this candy made of crystallized petals

Vié, who also runs La Maison de Violette, selling some 300 products linked to this tiny bloom which flowers in the bitter winter to early spring months, says business is blossoming.


"My turnover has increased six-fold in 10 years," she said, attributing this success to better communication, adding that in the past her customers were mainly elder people and tourists, whereas now more young locals were coming to buy her products.

The perfume group Berdoues, which has manufactured a violet-based perfume since 1936, is also revamping its range with the launch of a new "more feminine" fragrance for Saint Valentine's Day on February 14.

"Globally on the perfume market there is a renewal. This violet is a new interpretation of what my grandfather was doing 70 years ago," said managing director Sophie Berdoues-Coudouy.

The company is hoping to triple its EUR 12.5 million euro turnover in 2005 with its new product range.

But amid a shrinking pool of local producers, the company has been forced to buy a large proportion of its violets from growers in Grasse, in the Alpes Maritime region.

"It takes 2.5 tonnes of leaves and twice as many flowers to every kilo of alcohol," said the creator of the new perfume, Cédric Alfenore.

*sidebar1*Many manufacturers, such as Jean-François Serres who in the past 10 years has doubled his production of a violet liqueur to some 10,000 bottles, have been forced to look beyond the Toulouse region for violets, especially to the Cote d'Azur on the Mediterranean coast.

"Today with my 5,000 pots of flowers, I can only produce some 15 kilos of flowers each season," said Gérard Dutos, a Toulouse grower.

He acknowledged the new interest in violets saying he could have sent six to 10 tonnes of flowers every month to the world's largest fresh foods wholesale market at Rungis, in the Paris suburbs.

Part of the problem lies in the violets' very fragility, and the parma violet is among the most delicate of the species.

Reproduced by painstaking propagation, it then has to be grown in greenhouses for 13 months until it can be harvested from November to March.

The success of the crop is also dependent on the vagaries of the weather, leaving many growers badly exposed.

But Vié hopes you will do your part to support the violet this February with a lovely bouquet for votre amour.

If you're interested in learning more or growing violets yourself, contact:

Les Amis de la Violette
Tel: 05 62 16 31 31

For information, tours and a wide-range of violet products including cut flowers, see:

La Maison de la Violette

February 2006
Copyright AFP + Expatica

Subject: Living in France

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