the first time I ever smelled violets









The first first time I ever smelled violets was yesterday.



It amazes me somewhat to write that sentence, since I know the smell of violets like I know the colour of my eyes, but that smell has only ever been in perfume or in Parma candies : a chemical appropriation thereof. For some reason I have never before, in this lifetime, come into contact with the breathing, fragrant flowers themselves.



Yesterday, walking in the cold, in the pleasant but mundane town of Fujisawa where I mostly work ( life has been quite dreary since coming back from Cambodia : it is as if I am shellshocked by reality and the drop in temperature and have had to try in vain to tame my recalcitrant, wayward inner spirit which just wants to live in dreams: :  a lot of turbulent and discordant stress of late being the result ) –  I did a double take when walking past one of the standard florists as my sight alighted on some pots with the label ‘nioisumire’; or fragrant violets ( the ones that live in the woodlands near our house have no smell : these flowers are doubled in petal, more bunched up, I think Parma)……..and as I leaned in, like Snow White, I could smell violets – just as I always imagined the smell to be : sweet, pretty, velveted, but with green edges and a breath of soil – and I had to buy them.




During my lessons last night – fraught; perspirated; overcompensating for my lack of enthusiasm with frenetic ‘energy’, while the students were writing, I came down for a few minutes to the teachers’ room. And, when no one was looking, I plunged my face into the paper-wrapped potted plant. The smell of the nestled, living flowers hidden within the paper was nothing less than thrilling : as if all the history of violets in literature, and perfume, were condensing in one true moment and I was smelling them in their raw and pristine state: delicate; beautiful ;  emotional.





Filed under Flowers, Violet

18 responses to “the first time I ever smelled violets

  1. Phyllis Ann Iervello

    Neil, your post truly hit home with me tonight. I too have been living in my own little world since returning from Italy and Sicily in October. Sicily still lies deep in my heart and soul and I can’t believe it’s been over three months since I was there. In all that time I have not reconciled with the cold weather we are having here. I have no real living violets to smell but do have some perfumes based on them. It is amazing how smelling something wonderful can make everything right at least for that moment. I had a truly awful day today as nothing went right plus I took my car in for an oil change and ended up having to have many other things done which added up to $590.00 (which I might add will be the death toll for my monthly budget). When I got home from work, the first thing I did was inhale a couple of my perfume samples that I had not tested and for those moments all was well with the world.

    • Exactly. I have DESPISED January so far and been insane: it’s almost like the violets helped me turn a corner. Glad to know I have like-minded friends I can relate all of this to! I hope your week and month (and year) gets better. I suppose we are spoiled, in truth – most of the world never gets a chance to have a holiday in the first place.

  2. Kia ora, I don’t comment often, but often read your blog, I can’t wait for your book btw, I have had the pleasure of smelling violets in person a few times and the experience is always sublime, I want to grow my own, this year will be the year! I have never smelled tuberose in person… I should grow some of them too:)

    • This is it : perfume is one thing, but it is elation to smell a flower you have only experienced as an approximation in scent. I was out of mind when I smelled real ylang ylang and tuberose in Indonesia: please read those if you haven’t. The same with gardenia in Japan and vetiver, which I have never seen, but smelled on the night air..

  3. Tara C

    I have seen potted violets, but never noticed them having any odour. Must have been the wrong sort. I would love to smell a real live violet, with the leaves and dirt and coolness.

    January seems to be big bill month – need to re-do the roof ($15k) and last week had a plumbing emergency that set us back $2500. Ouch. Not to mention the electric bill was nearly $450. But as you say, we are fortunate.

    On Monday there was a storm that blew down a huge pine tree a few blocks away, crashing down on the house and killing the couple sleeping in their bed. I walked by the wreckage today when I was out with the dog, you could still see the bath towels hanging on the rack through the collapsed wall. We all have a date with destiny, one day or another. I hope they were sound asleep and killed instantly.

  4. Cody

    I live in a ski town in the western US and the weather here is dreadful too. I have my perfumes to keep me sane until this spring when everything closes and I can go travel. My partner and I are definitely going to Japan this spring.. any tips on where to shop for vintage perfumes? It sounds like a treasure trove

  5. OnWingsofSaffron

    I had a big terracotta pot on my balcony with a rose called Louise Odier whose scent was as lovely as her name. On the ground beneath garden violets grew, or should I say ran riot; like pepper mint they would invade all neighbour pots. These tiny, hardy flowers would bloom in the middle of winter, February or March. If you half crept into the pot, scratching your head with Louise‘s thorns, you could smell that fleeting, exhilarating scent! Sadly, the rose had to be replanted in a garden where she could expand, and the unruly violets went into the rubbish bin: sic transit gloria mundi!

    • I have also experienced that faint scent of violets you describe here, and I wondered if that was that – if they really do just have a transparent, watercolor perfume. They obviously are never like a rose, and probably even though they are supposedly ‘fragranr’ violets, the smell is fairly attenuated – possibly also because it’s Japan. Still, it is a fuller, more sublime violet scent than anything I have ever smelled before. I have never thought of them as virulent weeds

  6. We had violets in a corner of the front lawn growing up, but sadly they weren’t the fragrant type. Absolutely gorgeous to spy in their own little corner, but no scent.
    I do hope the violets will keep bringing you joy, January is a tough month, but winter in general is tricky.
    I am keeping cozy and well parfumed , which has Mede me feel quite content. Last week was my Mama’s birthday, which did make my mood sadden. For my Mama’s sake though, I pulled myself out of it and put on one of her favorite scents from long ago, Tabu…the good version from way back.
    Just remember, spring and summer will be here in a few months, and just like flowers, we will blossom again.
    Stay well and keep warm, oh, and of course keep writing.

  7. Phyllis Ann Iervello

    Luckily, January will be over at the end of next week only to be followed by February, the longest though shortest month of the year!

  8. A great post. I really enjoyed the last paragraph. I wish I could write like that. I don’t think I have ever smelt real violets, now you have inspired me.
    Funnily enough, I was in a pub in Suffolk the other day and I saw Parma violet gin. Initially the thought of it repelled me, but afterwards I found myself thinking I will have to try it next time.

  9. empliau

    I love violets, although i’ve never smelled fragrant ones. Nioi sumire is the name of a lovely color of Sailor ink, so it was a kick to see what it meant in your post! Hang on, January is ending soon!

  10. David

    I’m dreading February because here in Brazil it’s going to be all about Carnival preparation. Now that I am off everything it’s just not fun for me. People say you can still participate and have fun without the tricks and treats (I think you know what I mean), but I’m not wired that way. A part of me does look forward to seeing if I can be stronger than my temptations. And, I suppose, from a distance, I can still look at–but not touch– the hotness (some of the parades pass right by my apartment). I will be all dramatic and hang rue and rosemary all over my apartment, to ward off the evil (I hate thinking that sex and drugs are evil, but at this time, I think I might have to use this strategy to get through this).

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