According to language of flowers so popular during the 1800’s, the violet represents modesty and decency, qualities sorely lacking in modern society some would argue. There may be 500 or more species of violets as not only does this family include sweet violets, bedding violas and pansies but its members are naturally rather promiscuous and have also been crossed by breeders. Violets are mostly native to temperate Northern Hemisphere regions and the ones most commonly found in our yards probably originated in Europe.

Pansies by Lisa Rivers

Most violets are small perennial plants although some are annuals. Small clumps of heart to kidney-shaped leaves grow from compact stoloniferous rootstocks.  Half-inch flowers may be purple, bluish, white, yellow, pink, maroon, bicolored or speckled. Solitary flowers arise from leaf axils in April and May and consist of 5 sepals and 5 petals.

Violet ‘Freckles’ by dmp2016

Violet flowers are rather curious. We notice the flowers above ground but there are also hidden flowers beneath the soil surface of several species that never open but self-pollinate and produce fertile seeds in large numbers. These flowers are called cleistogamous flowers and they are why we often find so many violet seedlings each year surrounding our established plants. The seeds may be ejected several feet away from the parent plant as well which explains why violets can so easily spread throughout a lawn area.  

Common purple violet. Photo by dmp2016

Not all violets are fragrant although the ones that are can take me back to my younger days helping Grandma gather bouquets of sweet violets (Viola odorata) from her garden. The most common blue violet (V. sororia) which spreads vigorously throughout my gardens and lawn, and probably yours as well, has no scent that I can detect.  

Lore and legends surrounding violets go back at least to the times of the ancient Greeks when Zeus turned his lover, Io, into a heifer to protect her from the jealous Hera. He provided her with pastures filled with violets to feast on. The flower was, at one time, a symbol for Athens.

Violets were also a love token between Napoleon and his empress Josephine and later became his political emblem. During troubadour times in Toulouse, France, they were given as a poetry prize and in the Middle Ages in southern Germany, discovery of the first violets of spring was celebrated in dance.

Violet bouquet from http://www.depositphotos.com

Ancient herbalists Herodotus and Pliny ascribed medical virtues to violets, and they were recommended for gout and spleen disorders and in later times used to treat respiratory disorders. The leaves and flowers were found to have both antiseptic and expectorant properties. Flowers also contain vitamins A and C as well as some antioxidants.

The flowers of the sweet violet (V. odorata) are edible and have been used for garnishes and in salads, jams, jellies, liqueurs and baked goods. They are often candied and used as decorations on cakes, chocolates and other sweets. Other species are edible as well but be sure to positively identify plants before consuming. 

Candied violas from http://www.foodnetwork.ca

Violet water is made by weighing down and steeping violet leaves and flowers in water. The softly fragrant water is used in cooking to flavor tea breads, fruit compotes, chilled soups, ices and cupcakes. Both violet water and candied violets can be purchased. 

For a long time, violets were prized for their aromatic qualities. They were widely used in perfumes until the advent of synthetic fragrances. There are still some perfumes made from violets, but it may take a bit of searching to locate them.

Typically, violets prefer somewhat moist and shaded areas, but I have found them growing in garden beds in full sun which get little supplemental irrigation. Our common blue violet along with its white and hybridized relatives such as ‘Freckles’ are tough plants and compete well in the Northeast. I find that they are easier to dig up from unwanted areas in my garden then to get rid of in a lawn. Personally, I find a lawn awash in purple and white quite a lovely spring sight.

Violets in lawn. Photo by dmp, 2020

Many Connecticut residents are aware that pollinating insects are declining in numbers because of several factors including pesticide use, loss of habitat and climate change. Violets are a pollinator plant because the larvae of several butterfly species including the large yellow underwing and the silver bordered fritillary as well as the giant leopard moth and the Setaceous Hebrew character moth feed on violets. 

In general, violets need little care in terms of watering or fertilizing. Occasionally rabbits will nibble on the foliage, but it always grows back. Enjoy their short-lived blooms and consider using them as a groundcover under deciduous trees where turf grasses struggle.

Dawn P.