A hundred years ago, growers grew the plants that had been handed down through their families and did what they could to get them ready for market. Don Garibaldi, a third-generation violet grower, still farms like this. His family has been growing sweet violets on the California coast for a century; he has farmed his particular plot of land for thirty-five years. There, in those muddy violet fields on the coast, you can actually capture the essence of a flower farm before the invention of greenhouses and refrigerated trucks.
To get to his farm, Año Nuevo Flower Growers, you drive down the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco. The curvy, two-lane road hugs the shore, winding around hills and climbing up cliffs that get a constant pounding from the surf. There’s always mist in the air, and in the winter, when it rains, the hills are a deep green. Sometimes, in a sunny flat field opposite the beach, you’ll see the silvery leaves of artichokes or, in fall, orange pumpkins waiting to be harvested. The flower farms are usually hidden behind rows of eucalyptus trees that shield the flowers from the salty breeze and discourage drivers from letting their eyes stray from the road to the sight of a field of delphiniums or sunflowers in full bloom.
Año Nuevo is a state park about an hour and a half south of San Francisco, just north of Santa Cruz. It’s famous for the herd of elephant seals that arrives every year to breed on its protected beaches. This flower farm is adjacent to the state park, and it’s easy to miss: there’s a hand-painted sign, a dirt driveway, and a small trailer where Don keeps an office. Beyond that is a field of flowers too small to even notice at highway speeds. Those are the violets.
A century ago, violets were still one of the most popular cut flowers in the country, ranking just behind roses, carnations, and chrysanthemums. I’m not talking about pansies or African violets — I mean Viola odorata, the real, old-fashioned sweet violets with a fragrance that is straight out of another era. The small, woodland flowers bloom early in the spring before the leaves are on the trees; it is for this reason that Napoleon Bonaparte promised, upon being sent to exile, that he would “return with the violets in the spring.” His wife, Josephine, loved the flowers so much that he sent her a bunch every year for their wedding anniversary. She died while he was in exile, but immediately after he returned he collected violets from her garden and wore them in a locket until his own death.