I spent some time a while back searching various bookseller sites on the internet to find just about every book ever published about violets, pansies, and violas.
I think I have most of them now, including Wild Violets of North America by Viola Brainerd Baird.
I had never heard of Viola, but she’s now our latest lost lady of garden writing.
Viola’s book, published in 1942, turns out to be quite the treasure, full of beautiful color illustrations of all the wild violets found in North America.
As I paged through this book, I found the original receipt for its purchase tucked between two pages near the back of the book.
For this fine book, the original owner paid $10 in 1945 which in today’s dollars would be $169, according to two different online inflation calculators.
Whoever bought this book must have really loved violets. I paid far less than $169 for my copy which I am pleased to note still has the original cover on it, with a clear protective cover on that.
I also found near the back of the book a page noting that my copy of this book is number 550 of the 1,000 copies published, signed by Viola.
So who was Viola and why did she write this book?
Viola was born on August 5, 1875, the daughter of Ezra Brainerd, who was at one time the president of Middlebury College in Vermont, which she attended and graduated from in 1902. After that, she moved to California and in 1910 married Dudley Baird. They had one son.
In addition to being a college president, Viola’s father also wrote Violets of North America, published in 1915, which I have, and Some Natural Violet Hybrids of North America, published in 1924, which I do not have. Good used copies are expensive and I don’t want a not-good copy or a reprint, plus I can read it online.
Viola, who had a brother and four sisters, plus two step-sisters, shared her father’s interest in violets. How could she not? Her father named her after his favorite flower. Or was she named after her mother, Frances Viola Rockwell?
Viola noted in the acknowledgements of her book, “Of the many reference books I have consulted, my father’s Violets of North America, a publication of the University of Vermont Agricultural Experiment Station, has been the most useful. It has not only served as my inspiration, but has been my constant guide and source of information as well.”
To gather information for her book, Viola traveled all over the western United States gathering violet specimens. She relied on friends and acquaintenance to collect the violets in the eastern United States. For every violet, she wrote a description and personally supervised the artist’s drawing of it, paying particular attention to the colors used.
She ends the preface of the book with another nod to her father.
“It is my sincerest hope that it may stand not only as a contribution to science, but also as a monument to Ezra Brainerd, who started the undertaking and whose contributions to our knowledge of the North American violets have made it possible.”
Viola died in 1944, just a few years after her book was published.
Given her obvious admiration and love for her father which extended to sharing his passion for violets, I could think of no better lost lady of garden writing to write about on Father’s Day weekend than Viola Brainerd Baird.