Violets undoubtedly won the hearts of the French long before Napoleon Bonaparte came on the scene. Some say that violets were the first flower to be grown commercially—documented as an item in Greek marketplaces in 400 B.C. Mentioned in ancient herbals, used medicinally, and for their sweet flavor, violets were treasured throughout the world. When the Empress Joséphine, first wife of Napoleon, purchased Malmaison in 1799, she planted fragrant violets, the meek flower with the oversized aroma that vied with the rose as her favorite flower.
Napoleon is said to have sent her bouquets of the dainty flowers and he chose violets as his emblem. Later, when le Petit Caporal had been exiled to Elba, he remarked he would return to France when the violets blossomed again. His supporters secretly wore that concealed flower. Only a nebulously elusive scent identified their loyalties. When Joséphine passed away—after Napoleon had divorced her and married Marie Louise of Austria to father a legal heir— violets were left on her grave. Upon his Waterloo, Napoleon took a bouquet of those flowers with him when exiled to St. Helena, and a locket with violets was in his possession when he died in 1821. When his nephew, Napoleon III seized power, the violet gained further affection for the French when his wife, the Empress Eugénie, declared it as her chosen blossom. In 1873, Napoleon III died while in exile in England and violets grew at his mausoleum. His son took power as imperial prince, became a soldier, and was killed in battle at the tender age of 23. The passing of the Napoleons only strengthened the French affection for the flower. By the early 1880s, abundant violet bouquets were being sold annually on the streets of Paris.