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Dog Violet from my magical tale The Herbarium

I don’t know if delight is the proper collective noun for violets – I just made it up – but it’ll do nicely. Violets are delightful. They were one of the flowers that made many a 19th century poet go all lyrical, and endow them with the human characteristics of modesty, determination in the face of snowy weather, even loneliness. That romantic and deeply human-centric view of nature is deeply unfashionable now, but it was very much the way I learned to love the natural world from my mother and grandmother; beauty and language played a strong part. I’ll stick my neck out and say it’s as good a way as any for a child to develop a love of, and respect for, nature. Scientific understanding can come later.

But back to the violets. They were one of the first plants I learned to identify. In the garden of the big old Victorian house where I spent most of my childhood, sweet violets would reliably appear under one of the scrawny hawthorns. My sister and I would pick a little bunch for our mother’s birthday every March. This had nothing to do with science and everything to do with sentiment – but we still learned at an early age where the violets grew and when they flowered. As I said, there are worse ways to develop a regard for nature.

Later, I learned there were other types of violet – unscented dog violets that spread more purple delights along woodland paths and edges, and the hairy violets that grew among the grass tussocks on the open Surrey downland, as well as violets of wet places and heathland that I never did manage to find. But the sweet violets always spoke loudest to me. There was, and perhaps still is, a tradition of planting them beside gateways. A field gate on the downs was a reliable place to find, year in, year out. White-flowered, those were. And here in Dorset, I could take you, come next spring, to a field gate only a couple of miles from here where a traditionalist has planted violets. They were well-established twenty years ago when I first found them, but they could have been there two hundred years, for all I know. It’s the sense of continuity that appeals, and the toughness of those fragile little plants weathering the weather, hooves and tractor wheels, down the ages.

I’m perfectly aware, of course, that the flower’s beauty of form, colour and scent is aimed at pollinating insects and not at me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy and admire them, just like the 19th century poets. So, unfashionable or not, I shall continue to delight in violets.

My illustrated, magical, nature-inspired tales The Herbarium, The Chesil Apothecary and Dropwort Hall are available from www.veneficiapublications.com