Sweet little violet, where did you come from?

The fire and the accompanied windstorm of last year brought with it surprise packets  of seeds.  In my neighbourhood abandoned plots have become seedbeds for unwanted wattles, bugweed, peanut butter cassias, vincas, Flanders poppies, campions, cherry tomatoes, gooseberries etc.  Some wonderful indigenous species also sprung up;   Blue fountain bush (Psoralea affinis), Cape mallow  (Anisodontea scabrosa), Pokkiesblom  (Hermannia hyssopifolia), and miniature arum lilies, (Zantedeschia sp.)    In my garden a pure white form of sweet violet  (Viola odorata) appeared,  it is pretty little plant, however the scent is not quite as alluring as the purple violet.


Viola odorata alba

The delicate fragrance of sweet violets has won them a place in the hearts of most gardeners for many centuries. The origin of the violet, a member of the Violaceae family, is lost in antiquity.  One of the ‘Adonis flowers’, the tiny charming flower, so richly endowed with delicate perfume and exquisite royal purple colour, was the symbol of Athens, the proud emblem of Athenians, as much revered by them as the rose of England is cherished by the English, the shamrock by the Irish, and the fleur-de-lis by the French.

The violet has – perhaps more than any other flower – been used to express regard, faithfulness and love.  Called the symbol of modesty (because of the shy manner in which the blooms nestle among the leaves) it is also associated with motherhood.  Celebrations of mothers and motherhood can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who held festivals in honour of the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele, but the clearest modern precedent for Mother’s Day is the early Christian festival known as “Mothering Sunday.”  On that day all servants were permitted to go home to visit their mothers, and as Sunday fell during the flowering season of the violet, it became customary for them to take home a bunch of sweetly-scented violets. Once a major tradition in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe, this celebration fell on the fourth Sunday in Lent and was originally seen as a time when the faithful would return to their “mother church”—the main church in the vicinity of their home—for a special service. Over time the Mothering Sunday tradition shifted into a more secular holiday, and children would present their mothers with flowers and other tokens of appreciation. This custom eventually faded in popularity before merging with the American Mother’s Day in the 1930s and 1940s.

Although violets are grown primarily for their scent and delicate beauty, they have culinary uses, too, and they were once widely used medicinally.  During the medieval period the violet was included among the plants that were regarded as ‘powerful against evil spirits’.  It was cultivated mainly for its medicinal properties and for cooking purposes.  The ancient Greeks used it as a sweetener, a practice followed until the introduction of sugar.  The wild rose and the violet were in great demand to sweeten both meat and game, and together with the lily, hollyhock, paeony and coriander, they were all used for flavouring foods, and as ingredients in medical preparations.  They were also grown commercially from earliest days in Persia and Greece, mainly for their sweetening properties.

Viola odorata

They grow naturally in damp shady places in or near woodland. Plant them in drifts, like ground cover, as individual plants they are easily overlooked.  Sweet violets self-sown freely, once established clumps can be divided.


  • The ancient Greeks and Romans cultivated them for lotions and Vinum Violatum, a viola wine.
  • In Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream the ‘juice of heartsease’ (an English name for the viola) is rubbed onto the eyelids of someone who is asleep. As a result they fall madly in love with the first person they see when they wake.
  • You can eat Violas that have been specially grown for human consumption – they look great in a salad.
  • The Viola is the symbol of humility.
  • In perfumes the Viola is ‘the flirty note’ which comes and goes.



Viola melanium


Modern day pansies and viola annuals are derived by hybridization from several species in the section Melanium (“the pansies”)[2] of the genus Viola, particularly Viola tricolor, a wildflower of Europe and western Asia known as heartsease. Some of these hybrids are referred to as Viola × wittrockiana Gams ex Nauenb. & Buttler. For simplicity, the older name Viola tricolor var. hortensis is often used. (Wikipedia)



Viola x wittrockiana

References: By Any Other Name ~ Gladys Lucas