PLANT OF THE WEEK #69: Viola odorata

Back when I was living with the family in Northern Ireland (as you do, for twelve months, when you just feel like your life needs a bit of adventure), we discovered some lollies named ‘Parma violets’.  I bought a packet, and we all had one each.  The kids decided that next time lolly day came around (Saturdays only), they’d buy a whole packet for themselves.  By about the third ‘Parma violet’ in a quick succession, they started to turn a faint shade of mauve.  They’ve never been able to face them since.  But the extraordinary thing is that they tasted EXACTLY like the smell of true violets.  It was amazing.  And kind of disturbing.

a white form

This comes to mind as the spot outside where I sit for breakfast, or in the afternoon for a pre-sunset beer, is currently awash with the perfume of sweet violets.  The very air is viscous with it.  It’s an aroma that I’m convinced could be measured in Celsius, for it has a distinct warmth, as if it raises the temperate of the air it invades.  It’s a scent loaded with the anticipation of spring – a deposit of benignity into the tight, if late, grip of winter.  And I do nothing to encourage it, nothing to cultivate it and, frankly, nothing to deserve it.

My dirty pink form

Curiously, some people (including my wife) can’t smell violets.  And even those of us who can quickly desensitise to the perfume after several long and satisfying draughts.  It takes a few minutes for the receptors to reset before you’ll get any further satisfaction, no matter how hard you sniff.

a pretty standard (but superbly scented) ‘violet’ violet

Some previous owner of my land clearly planted a dirty pink but clear-scented form of Viola odorata in the shade of a big old concrete tank here, and they’ve been accidentally dug over, grown over with juicy weeds, repeatedly trodden on, flooded, droughted and generally neglected but return with gusto every year.

Sweet violets are the under-plant par excellence.  They come in white, various shades of mauve, somewhat muddy through to clear pinks, deep purple and pale apricot. At my place, they manage with absolutely no light and no supplementary water in summer, protected, as they are, by all manner of evergreen shrubs and voluminous perennials nearby.  Though come to think of it, they only thrive on the south side of the tank.  I’m guessing that they’d need a little surface water over summer if they were to provide a good underplanting elsewhere.

Some time in autumn they start to leaf up, and by mid winter they’ve formed a weed-impenetrable ground cover to about 10cm which explodes into bloom, flowers level with the foliage, just as we’re turning the corner into spring.  I see that Woodbridge nursery advertises a tall form, with stems to 20cm.  That’d be great for picking.  Mine are near useless, though I always end up with a minuscule old medicine bottle of them, with stems only centimetres in length.

a purple spurred white – one of the many variations that likely to pop up spontaneously in gardens

I’m so grateful for such olfactory generosity from total neglect.  And I always smell ‘em before I spot ‘em.

Good stuff about violets

  • They’re super-tough in spots with adequate shade and moisture (they don’t need a lot of the latter, but beneath a certain tipping point, they’re hopeless)
  • The perfume, which is outrageous (as long as you have the receptors)
  • Their weed-suppressing power

Annoying stuff about violets

  • They can get a bit out of hand in a moist, shady location.  (Though in many such locations, you should be grateful for that)
  • They grow where they want to grow, insistently, and that’s not necessarily where you want them to grow
  • They can, when growing beneath herbaceous perennials, become a little competitive with them as the perennials are shooting up in spring.

Discussion

  1. In my garden there are purple, pin and white violets, none of which I planted. I used to dig them out every year but I’ve now given up because they’re impossible to remove and, as you say, they’re soon going to cover a shady area where I’ve struggled to grow anything as a ground cover.

    1. I hate to think of how much time I’ve spent, over the years, removing low-growing stuff that I considered weedy, when the better solution would have been to plant the area with stuff taller and a little more competitive than the thing I’m trying to remove, and allow them to fight it out, grateful for the weed-suppressing ground cover.

  2. You are so right about the power of the violet’s perfume. It can be detectable before you see the flowers. Is it because winter doesn’t always provide too many competitors in the scent department? The delicate perfume belies the sheer bloody-mindedness of the violet’s will to survive in any garden conditions. I have it kind of contained under deciduous trees, with vinca minor and bluebells. The cohabitation works well. Come November, when it all stops working, I mow with blades set fairly low. Within a couple of weeks, fresh green growth appears, and peaceful cohabitation is restored between the violets and the vinca.

    1. I love those kind of management tips! I’m guessing that without the regular cut back, the balance would eventually tip in favour of the Vinca. The performance of both would be optimised by that treatment, no doubt, and you’ve gotta love a bit of mower-gardening!

  3. Hi Michael, I am new to your website and I am loving it. Thank you, I am also hugely relieved to hear that not every is able to smell them. I don’t smell them but visually I adore them. Such a generous plant. Mandyo

    1. Glad you found us! Sad you can’t smell violets. It’d be interesting to know if you can taste those crazy violet-flavoured sweets.

  4. I may be wrong, but I seem to remember that violets flower better on the new runners, so mowing/digging/removing the old positively encourages a better crop. I often think what a difficult job it must of been for those victorian flower harvesters – picking those sweet posies from so low down!

    1. I know! Those big bunches sold in Covent Garden! (think My Fair Lady). Imagine how long they took to pick?

  5. Such a ‘Nanna’ plant is the Violet for me. Memories of quite long-stemmed largish purple Violets growing amongst Soleirolia soleirolii in Nanna’s lush fernery… or maybe they seemed bigger because I was little then. Viola hederacea, the sweet white/purple native Violet in bloom is a joy to behold in a moist shady spot. It once grew naturally behind our Wimmera home along a creek, now disappeared completely in the last 20 years of diverted natural flows and changing seasons.

    1. I hate hearing that. Did it flower well in the wild? My experience is that it is largely very sparsely flowering

    2. Gosh I’m not 100% sure Michael, it’s so long ago. I do know my heart always skipped a beat when I saw it growing on the mini-escarpments the creek carved through the bush. We have it in the Grampians and it is definitely sparse flowering in the bush but in cultivation a lot more reliable – lovely groundcover.

  6. I have purple, pink, pale mauve and white, none of which I planted. I have a stand of big, old arbuteus and the violets don’t seem to mind the dry shade at all. I love them.

  7. Michael you may recall suggesting this to me some months ago in a discussion thread on the ‘difficult ground layer’ (under perennials). So, I got some roots of it from my mother’s garden (where she has a great frothy sea of it under her camellias) and popped it in a few spots to experiment.
    It has romped away in half to full shade (yep – will grow in the dark). Also in full sun, but turns brown (looks dead) if still in sun in summer. Where the perennials grow up and shade it then it’s fine – so success!
    Only issue – it self seeds and appears all over the place – including in my buffalo lawn – that competitiveness is a double edged sword! As you mention at the start of this thread the perennials must be large enough not to be swamped by it or robust enough to grow up through it (if dormant over winter) – my mass of Anemone x hybrida has dwindled somewhat trying to compete.
    But then there is that scent – I was sitting reading in the garden the other day beside my ‘woodland’ bed and immersed in the most delicious sweet fragrance – took me a while to work out what it was – a bit thick given the great mass of viola odorata beside me but I could not believe such tiny flowers would pump out such wonders – what a joy!

  8. I can’t smell them either Michael. I don’t feel peculiar at all. I’m sure your wife is not peculiar either. Ho Ho Ho. But I do have three varieties of the violets, found two white ones hiding in the shade. But I have never seen the white with pink tinges. Gorgeous. Whatever the colour.

    1. Oh, there’s nothing peculiar about not being able to smell them. I don’t remember saying that my wife is peculiar (though no doubt, she is (in a good way, of course))

  9. You must have mentioned the Parma violet sweets before… Because some time ago I went searching for them, determined to at least taste them if I can’t smell them. ..
    Found some in the lolly shop, and had to spit it out. It appears that if one is not meant to smell violets, one is not meant to taste them either. All I could taste was a heavy cloying sweetness.
    On very rare occasions though, I think I can just detect a bit of a whiff of the scent. So I kind of know what you are raving about.
    As a plant, it pleases me and annoys me at the same time. I have quite a few as I kept buying new ones on line before I realised that my nose was at fault, not the description in the catalogue that said, for example, that ” just one flower of this delightful double white cultivar will fill your room with is sublime scent”.
    I love them, but not in my veggie patch that the white one is determined to conquer. 🙂

    1. I love this Adele. I think that all plants should be rated on a annoys me/pleases me scale. If it’s scored, say 2, it means that it’s more annoying than pleasurable, and if it’s 8, it’s more pleasurable then annoying. Very, very few plants – at least in my assessment – would rate more than 8. As for the ‘just one flower…’ sales pitch, I don’t buy it. It always takes more than one flower, even for those of us with good violet-noses.

      And I love that you had to spit out the parma violet sweets. I did write about them, a few years ago. My daughter ate one, and the moment it hit her tongue, she stated ‘instant headache’. I find them both compelling and repellent. It’s like, say, the stinky fritillarias. I know they smell awful, but I can’t help but smell them again, every year.

  10. I loved violets and have a number of varieties but oh dear, apart from the Parma violet and a tiny clump of double white, they are now my very invasive “weed”.

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