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A Shrinking Violet Blooms Again On British Soil

Extinct in England, the fragrant flower takes the long root home via Canada

A rare flower that became extinct in England decades ago has been given a new lease on life in its ancestral home, thanks to the efforts of descendants of a couple who emigrated to Toronto, Canada in 1835.

When Robert and Hannah Robson and their daughter, Jane, set out for a new life in North America, they took with them from their home in Piercebridge, County Durham, some garden cuttings, among them a double-headed violet.

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The family found that the small, strong-scented flower flourished in the clear, fresh air of their farm near Toronto.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, sulphur pollution, caused by factory smoke, began attacking the species in the wild, virtually wiping it out. Later, during World War II, Britain's "Dig for Victory" campaign, in which the nation's flower beds were turned into vegetable gardens to supplement scarce food supplies, what remained of the flower disappeared.

That would have been the end of the violet's life in England, but for the curiosity of the great-grandson of the emigr couple.

From his home in Toronto, Balfour Le Gresley wrote to a museum in Darlington, England, near where the Robson family lived. He happened to mention the violet, noting that as far as he knew, it did not grow elsewhere in Canada.

Museum curator Alan Suddes made inquiries to the International Violet Society (IVS), and they wrote back, confirming that in Britain there was no longer any trace of the species.

This prompted Mr. Le Gresley to ask himself: Why not send it back to where it came from? Quickly he swung into action.

He posted one set of cuttings to Clive Groves, vice president of the IVS, who runs a garden nursery in Dorset, in the west of England. Last year, Mr. Groves planted them in his own flower garden.

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A second set of cuttings went to Durham University where members of the staff planted them in a botanical garden.

This spring, Groves was able to tell Gresley that the rare violet was reestablished in both places.

In April, Durham University began making arrangements for the flower to be replanted in Piercebridge, as near as possible to where the Robsons used to live. That is likely to happen later this year.

Le Gresley, a retired chemistry teacher, visited Britain soon after the plant returned to its original homeland. He said: "I have had these flowers in my garden all my life. They have never produced any seeds that I'm aware of, and are probably the original plants."

Interviewed, Groves added: "The violets probably died out in the wild here in England, thanks to fumes caused by the Industrial Revolution. The wartime food effort eliminated the few that remained in flower beds." The flower has been identified as a member of the sweet violet family, but so far botanists in Britain have not been able to trace its original species name.

"I have spoken to experts and consulted many books, but can find no record of this strain surviving today," Groves says.

If botanical experts fail to discover the species name, Groves says he would like the bloom that has twice crossed the Atlantic to be called Viola Odorata Le Gresley, as a tribute to the man who returned it to its original home.


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