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.

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.

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.

A more traditional ‘violet’ violet

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.

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.

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PLANT OF THE WEEK #69: Viola odorata