“Spring is such a happyfying time,” Emily Byrd Starr of L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon writes to her father in a letter full of charming misspellings. “The little Blue People are all out round the summer-house. That is what Cousin Jimmy calls the violets and I think it is lovely.”
The “little blue people,” or as I’d call them, the little purple people, are out in my yard now, taking over from the fig buttercups and snow glories. They’re keeping me company while I’m at home to reduce the spread of COVID-19. I’ve been working remotely since March 10th, when my kids’ school district closed, and my area has been under a stay-at-home order since March 23rd.
My world is smaller now, and I’m paying more attention to what’s in it, like the “little purple people” poking through the grass. On a recent walk around my neighborhood, which is as far as I go these days, I noticed how different each flower looks from the next. Some were not even purple.
I found a patch of white ones!
On making this discovery, I felt like Anne Shirley, L.M. Montgomery’s most famous heroine, who remarks to Gilbert Blythe while trying to distract him from expressing his love for her, “Do you know, I found a cluster of white violets under that old twisted tree over there today? I felt as if I had discovered a gold mine.”
It was thrilling to see something for the first time, something that was probably right under my feet each spring of years past, when I was too busy to notice.
I’ve never thought much about viola diversity before. Are there blue ones too, or is blue a synonym for purple when talking about violets?
L.M. Montgomery mentions violets several times, especially in the Anne of Green Gables series. For example:
- Anne wonders if amethysts are the “souls of good violets”
- Violet Vale is “empurpled” with flowers
- Priscilla declares that Anne’s soul is “a white violet, with purple streaks in its heart” and thinks that “if a kiss could be seen… it would look like a violet.”
- Anne thinks that “violets are little snips of the sky that fell down when the angels cut holes out for the stars to shine through.”
- She analogizes the year to a book, saying that “spring’s pages are written in mayflowers and violets;” and eventually,
- She flings Roy Gardner’s “violets aside to put Gilbert’s lilies-of-the-valley in their place.”
Anne’s violets are white, purple, and blue like “little snips of the sky.”
Blue is a rare color in nature. According to Gizmodo, “Less than 10 percent of the world’s 280,000 flowering plants produce blue flowers,” but maybe violets are among them. Are there blue violets on Prince Edward Island, the setting of Montgomery’s novels? In Notes on New or Rare Violets of Northeastern America, an article published in 1913, between the time Montgomery published Anne of Green Gables (1908) and Emily of New Moon (1923), botanist Ezra Brainerd describes violets in Prince Edward Island, but he doesn’t mention the color blue.
To Montgomery, purple and blue are interchangeable. There’s a reference in Emily of New Moon to a poem called The Violet’s Spell, confiscated from Emily’s desk by Miss Brownell, a cruel teacher. “The Violet’s Spell,” Miss Brownell reads. “I hope the violet spells better than you do, Emily.”
In 1894, L.M. Montgomery published a poem called The Violet’s Spell in The Ladies World. In it, she describes violets as both purple and blue:
Only a violet in the trodden street
Breathing its purple life out ‘neath the tread
Of hundreds, restless, eager, hurrying feet.
Blue smiled the sky where thro’ the fir trees green
The summer sunshine fell in golden sheaves
And shyly from beneath their mossy screen
With half averted face as one who grieves,
Blue violets peeped thro’ last year’s withered leaves.
Are the violets blue because the color is associated with sadness? Or did she see the color differently from how I see it?
Many people describe violets as blue. The violets I have in my yard are probably a variety known as the common blue violet (Viola sororia). It’s also known as the common meadow violet, lesbian flower, hooded violet, wood violet, and woolly blue violet.
To me, violets are not blue. As Margaret B. Harvey, the author of How to Arrange Wild-Flowers, published in The Connoisseur in 1887, states, “There are no blue violets, remember; they are purple, white, and yellow.”
If I had a bucket list, finding yellow violets would be on it. White ones reside in my neighborhood, and the little purple people reside in my yard.
And like people, violets are not immune to pandemics. In a discussion of cultivated violets, a Scientific American article from December 10, 1881 described “a plague among the violets”:
The first symptom is the development of nearly circular spots on the petals of the flower… After this symptom appears, the destruction of the plant is a question of a few hours only; the leaves become limp and wilted, the stem withers from the root, and the delicate organism is soon transformed, from the minutest rootlet to the tip of the leaf, into a dry lifeless effigy.
Admiring violets didn’t turn out to be as much of a distraction from COVID-19 as I’d expected.