Sweet Violets, Viola odorata and other violets

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July 29, 2018

The sweet violets have been secretly flowering low amidst their leaves here and there since May. But now, in late July, the secret is out and you can see the haze of purple in their otherwise carpet of green leaves from the window.

My mother says there were no violets in this garden when she first came. Now there are everywhere, loving shady spots under trees. They even self-seed in the lawn and in the paving. Mostly they are purple, in various shades. The bluest shades of purple are my favourite. But there is also pink, often a beautiful dusky pink, mauve and the odd patch of white ones.

The biggest patch of violets is under the walnut tree. Which is interesting, because the ground under walnut trees is often a barren wasteland of ugly brown and blackened walnut leaves, but no ground-cover plants. This is because walnut trees produce a toxin called juglone which inhibits the growth of many other plants. Not violets it seems.

In the autumn I’ve been raking up all the walnut leaves and using them to mulch an area under the persimmon trees that I want to keep free of competition. I hope it works and doesn’t have a negative impact on the persimmons, but I digress.

I picked bunches of violets with some dear friends last year and one of them remarked that her grandmother said that if you pinned a bunch of violets on your breast and they wilted then it was a sign you were a flirt. Eventually any flower pinned to one’s breast will wilt of course, flirt or not. Also, I wouldn’t have thought that the demure little violet was associated with flirts. They seem too old-lady’s soap for that.  I looked up flirting and violets on the internet (which was more successful when I put in the latin name for violets) and found that the scent of violets is described as flirtatious also because it comes and goes: now you smell me, now you don’t. Apparently this happens because the chemical that makes them smell also switches off our ability to smell it now and then. Could this chemistry be the origin of the association with violets with flirtatious women?

Anyway, the bees love the violets at the moment which is pleasing as I’ve wondered about the poor bees through the winter of frost and fog. Imagine being a worker bee whose whole life took place in the winter months. How unfair.

My friends and I soaked the violets we picked in vodka to make crème de violette. This was fiddly and slow because you have to pick nip all the flowers off their stems, but not difficult.  You put the stemless flowers in a jar, splash the vodka or eau de vie on top, put the lid on your jar and leave them for a week or so till all the colour has leached out of the flowers. Then you strain it, add some sugar syrup, to taste (my taste says not much) and bottle.  

You can also make a salad with echos of flowers in it with tender, young violet leaves and scatter the flowers on puddings or cakes just before serving.

I’m sure to feel the need to achieve another poetic but not really all that useful something before the violets finish and so I think I will try and make violet syrup. Violet syrup is apparently useful for infantile complaints. Everyone has an infantile complaint now and then!

There are other sorts of violets as well is odorata.  I planted one which is white with purple speckles called “freckles” or viola sororia last year, but I can’t remember where I planted it, which is a bit of a problem. It flowers later than odorata and doesn’t have a scent.

Then there are parma violets. These are double petaled and squashed looking as if they have fallen on their face. They have a beautiful scent, like odorata, but stronger I think. Mine have shorter floppier stems than odorata and are therefore  harder to pick a bunch of for anything but the doll’s house. I twice planted them in my previous garden and watched them ail and die. I didn’t realise then that, unlike other violets, they like a sunny spot. They originate from the levant and therefore have different needs from odorata (which barely has any needs at all). I am happy report that I now have a patch of white parma violets ones and another of mauve ones. Both seem to be happily spreading in a sheltered sunny bed near the house where I am also growing sage, oregano and thyme. They are not flowering for me yet.

There is violet which is native to Tasmania as well, viola hederacea. It has no scent, but flowers almost continuously in shady spots.  It has delicate white and mauve flowers.