Violet, Viola: “Loverly”
Like lawn daisies, wild violets are considered to be weeds, depending on your position. They are also small and temptingly pickable for children. Since picking wild flowers is generally discouraged, it is worthwhile growing these very easy plants for yourself: peering into them and appreciating the scented varieties is only otherwise possible if you are happy to lie down on the coldly damp ground, in early spring.
Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer for Gardenista.
Although they come from the same family (Violaceae), violets differ from their larger, louder and more cooperative cousins, the pansies. While cultivated pansies do service as winter bedding, violets go their own way, being more scraggly and “natural.” Having said that, the wild pansy (Viola tricolor), also known as Heartsease, has a similar kind of diminutive charm, with a more pronounced combination of yellow, white, and violet in one flower.
Sweet violet (V. odorata) has hairy leaves, and a bigger scent than its modest appearance (usually plain dark purple though it can be white) would suggest. It is the flower of Eliza Doolittle. Small bunches of highly scented flowers had a currency 100 years ago which has diminished, since we rarely wear corsages and have found alternative ways to hide bad odors. Violets contain ionone, which represses the sense of smell, useful in days of erratic hygiene but also an explanation of the “ephemeral” nature of violet’s own scent. You smell it one minute but not the next.
• There are sweet violets and dog violets, the latter having no scent. Both types have heart-shaped leaves.
• Scented violets are less commonly seen in the wild than the scentless varieties. Of the former, the whole plant is scented, not just the flower.
• Of the dog violets, north American violet Viola cucullata, or purple violet, is bigger, later, and disappears completely in winter. Viola labradorica ‘Purpurea’ has purple leaves, a good complement to its paler petals. Both are ideal for wilder spaces as they can be invasive.
Keep It Alive
• Violets thrive in woodland and on rough ground; they will grow in your garden if you can give them the right conditions.
• Like wild strawberries, they make easy ground cover, spreading through runners, which easily take root. They make a very traditional (and charming) companion to roses.
• While people bemoan the diminishing prevalence of violets in the wild (those who are not overrun with them at home), it is easy to create your own colony, making a deposit on the future of the species.
Like many spring flowers, violets thrive in damp, well-drained ground that becomes shaded over the summer.
N.B.: If you’re planning to plant violets this spring learn more about them in our Perennials 101 plant guide: