When a friend from near Rhinebeck, in upstate New York, mentioned that their local movie theatre was showing a documentary film about the huge violet growing industry in the area I thought: “What? ’ve got to see this.” It seemed such an odd place to be the violet growing capital of the world.
The film is Sweet Violets, written, produced and directed by Tobe Carey and it’s a fascinating look back at what was once a thriving cut flower industry – all centered on Rhinebeck and a few nearby villages.
“It has been remarked, jocularly,” said The Garden magazine in 1903, “that every second building in Rhinebeck, NY is a violet house, and that they are now beginning to build others between…. This aggregation boasts of upwards of sixty violet growing establishments… No healthier plants, finer flowers or heavier crops can be found anywhere in the world.” And then it turns out that just one company, Julius Vonder Linden, grew violets in sixty four greenhouses and that at one time there were four hundred violet houses in and around the small town Rhinebeck.
The usual size for a violet house was 24ftx200ft so that’s a lot of violets. Ten thousand flowers a week was reckoned to be an ordinary yield from one greenhouse and at peak season a quarter of a million blooms might be shipped by train from nearby Rhinecliff station to New York City in one day.
Interestingly, there seem to be divided opinions on which were the most popular varieties: ‘Marie Louise’, ‘Frye’s Fragrant’ and ‘Duchesse du Parme’ are all mentioned as the most widely grown.
The film features reminiscences by former growers and members of their families, some delightful old cards and posters featuring violets and many period photographs showing the violet houses and how the violets were grown.
Strangely, it’s left unclear why so much violet growing should be concentrated in Rhinebeck, in particular, and it’s sad to see such a thriving industry reduced, as the film shows, to one slender bed along the side of one greenhouse now filled with anemones.
But the beginning of the end came in 1926 when a very popular Broadway play, The Captive featuring Basil Rathbone and Helen Menken, used violets as symbol of lesbian love and this is association said to have set off the decline in the popularity of violets. “It just about killed the business,” says one contributor to the film. The rising cost of heating the greenhouses through the peak November to April season in a cold climate, along with changing fashions, hastened the decline.
Now most of the greenhouses are gone and there is just that one strip of violets in one greenhouse from which flowers are still picked for local sale.
In December 1901 the magazine Birds and Nature reported: “With the exception of the rose, no other plant is so widely distributed, and at the same time so universally admired, as the violet.” Sadly, not any more.
You can order copies of Sweet Violets from the Sweet Violets movie website.