The Violet Gazette

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Written by:  Mirabel Osler.
© 1993, 2000 All Rights Reserved
Online Version by:  AVS.
© 2000 All Rights Reserved

Volume 1, Number 2
Spring 2000
On line Version


THE VIOLACEAE: Violets and Pansies

The following excerpt from Mirabel Osler's book, In the Eye of the Garden, is being reprinted/reproduced by special permission granted by its publisher, J.M. Dent Ltd. (London)

             " 'I never saw anybody that looked stupider', a Violet said, so suddenly, that Alice quite jumped..."In looking Glass, Lewis Carroll attributes to this flower a far more caustic tongue than I would have expected after looking closely at their faces.

             Now, and I don't know how it's happened, violas and pansies have appeared like a deep indigo dye soaking through the pages of this book. Ought I to apologize because there they come again? Perhaps it's because the flowers are universally available with their familiar demeanor, and maybe too because they are found in natural habitats as diverse as the blandly pastoral and the raw wilderness.

             They are flowers to which there has to be some sort of response, however dedicated to the smell of diesel oil and the thrum of machinery a person indifferent to flora and fauna may be. As there are about twenty-two genera and well over nine hundred species of Violaceae worldwide, it's not surprising that we make strong and personal judgment about these flowers. I know I have written about violets, violas, and pansies earlier in the book, including those aberrations, those nightmare mutations bred for show with faces and purple patches too heavy to remain vertical without support, but now I want to write about the species of this genus: the source of all the hybrids we buy by the fistful each spring and autumn.

             Violets have been with us for thousands of years, and but for them, and for their continuing existence, we would never have the annual treat of stocking our flowerbeds from seeds and nurseries with members of this motley clan just as demurely or as flamboyantly as we choose. Lose the wild flowers, and we would lose our source of renewal.

Viola Canadensis IMAGE
Viola Canadensis

             In America, at the end of the last century, New England was the Mecca of violet growing, and, as in London, violets were sold on the streets of New York. Natives of the violet family, such as Viola blanda, are still to be found in the United States from Maine to Georgia. V. canadensis is an herb of the eastern seaboard and the Rockies, while a tall, striped viola, V. striata, and the large-bloomed Great American Violet, V. cucullata, are found in the far north of the continent.

             In the Olympic National Park in the state of Washington are found three of the most lovely violas: the hook violet, the pioneer violet, and the Flett Violet.

Hook Violet IMAGE
Hook Violet (Viola adunca)

             The hook violet, V. adunca, a low, deep blue flower with a white heart, and the tall pioneer violet, V. glabella, a brilliant yellow flower with heart-shaped leaves and purple "honey guides," both grow in the impenetrable forest, where openings of the tree canopy allow enough sunlight through, and also in the sub-alpine zone (similar to the sub-artic regions of Canada), where the growing season is short and where, in midsummer, there are moist meadows and dry hillsides. The hook violet is also widespread in the temperate parts of North America and the pioneer violet is found in southern Alaska and the Sierra Nevada.

             The third of these violas is rare: the Flett violet, V. flettii, is bluish-purple and only appears in the high country after the last snow has melted among rocky crevices of the peaks on the south and west-facing slopes. The Flett violet is among seven other plants endemic to the Pleistocene Ice Age. Glaciers, about three thousand feet deep, left isolated peaks rising above frozen desolation, and where these eight relics have miraculously survived.

             The violet family are promiscuous; given the chance, they would inveigle us to sigh over their frailty throughout north European countries and Greenland, the Mediterranean, Asia Minor, the Caucasus, Syria, Palestine, and North Africa; on through Kashmir, the Atlas mountains, and the Himalayas, to Central Siberia and the Altai mountains; and improbable as it may seem the marsh violet inhabits the Azores.

             For the following information on the thirteen species indigenous to Britain I am unequivocally indebted to a friend and botanist, Jo Dunn. Without her painstaking field work and research as well as her scholarly notes, photographs, and patient guidance, I should be wallowing in a sea of violets, unable to disentangle one tiny flower from another.

Early Dog Violet IMAGE
Early Dog Violet

             Here are their Latin names for those in the know or on the brink of becoming that way: Viola odorata (sweet violet); V. hirta (hairy violet); V. rupestris (Teesdale violet); V. riviniana (common dog-violet); V. reichenbachiana (early dog-violet); V. canina (heath dog-violet); V. lactea (pale dog-violet); V. persicifolia (fen violet); V. palustris (marsh violet); V. lutea (mountain pansy); V. tricolor (wild pansy but also known as heartsease); V. tricolor subspecies curtisii (dune pansy): V. arvensis (field pansy)' and V. kitaibeliana (dwarf pansy).

             Starting with the sweet violet, this one appears early in the year with a span of colour varying from deep purple, through lilac and rosy-mauve to white and it's the only one of our violets that is scented. How surprising when you think now often we associate these flowers with fragrance. The sweet violet lurks; scrub, hedgerows, or woodland are its territory as well as chalky soil. IN country churchyards where it may occur naturally or may have been deliberately introduced from gardens or countryside, it remains safe from annihilation by the manic use of herbicides which still pollutes even some of our graveyards. As summer progresses reproduction of the sweet violet is either by self-pollination or by means of "stolons," the surface runners, rather as strawberries take root.

             The scentless hairy violet in shades of shadowy blue-violet veined with purple, is as beautiful as any in this country. Found in open, calcareous grassland it is clumpy in growth with a creamy eye and leaves that when young scroll inwards the way some shells are devised. The hairiness comes from the roughness of the leaves and dense hairs on the leaf-stalks, which make it easy to distinguish from the sweet violet. Instead of runners, it has seeds and seed-stalks rich in oil. Jo tells me she has found young seed-coats lying in little heaps around these flowers: the work of that nocturnal and big-eared creature, the wood mouse, which has an appetite for juicy fruit and buds, peas and beans, as well, apparently, as for the hairy violet. As for ants, a kind of symbiosis has arisen between them and the violets' because they relish the oily seed-stalks, the ants carry the seeds away, dispersing them among anthills where the plants grow with abundance. Although widespread in Britain, the hairy violet has become so rare in the Burren, County Clare, Ireland, that it is now a protected species.

             The third of these native flowers is exquisite. The Teesdale violet is minute: a tufted non-creeper, hairy all over, it is described as an upland plant and rare in Britain but fortunately it is distributed throughout central Europe including parts of Norway, Corsica, the Italian Alps, Macedonia and Central Asia; in North America from Quebec to Alaska and south from Maine and Oregon. And according to the Red Data Book: "This perennial is known from eleven localities on open, mossy, sheep-grazed turf or bare ground on limestone in Yorkshire, Durham and Westmoreland...Though it appears to be adequately protected now, threats exist from collectors, because of its rarity and the proximity of an easy access road in one area, and from the planting of conifers." (That dread habit we have in Britain of spreading sterility up and down our hills).

             Anyone walking country lanes will have seen the common dog-violet, a bluish-violet perennial with a paler spur, concealed on banks or among last year's woodland leaves. It flowers later than the sweet violet and the early dog-violet and, as far as I'm concerned, all three appear impossible to distinguish. But for those in the know, with sharp eyes and the inbuilt habit of looking where they walk, this trio, unless they've hybridized from close proximity, can be sorted out by the shape and colour of the spurs, whether they have runners (which this one hasn't) and from the form of leaves, sepals and stipules.

             The fifth in this list is the early dog-violet, another non-creeper distinguished from the common violet by having paler, "fly-away" petals giving it an alert, listening look. And whereas in the common dog-violet the spur is cream tinged with violet, here the spur is darker than the petals. In England it's everywhere: hedgebanks and woods, on limy or chalky soils, but curiously it is only sprinkled about Wales and Ireland and rare in Scotland.

             The heath dog-violet, with short creeping rhizomes, is a very blue species with a yellowish spur, found growing in acid grassland, fens or on heaths.

             The seventh flower is enchanting. Milky-coloured and ghostly, this noncommittal pale dog-violet has leaves often tinged with purple, adding to its unearthly quality. Growing in scattered localities on dry heaths in Anglesey and Pembroke, Sussex, Essex and often in southwest England, the flower is also found in parts of Ireland. On the Gower peninsula in south Wales Jo Dunn hunted it down on cliff-tops, surprised to find it growing so close to the sea.

             The fen violet, V. persicifolia (which descriptively means "with leaves like those of the peach tree" and was called persica malus by Pliny), is a beautiful flower a breath away from vanishing. Rare! Endangered! Vulnerable! What other adjectives carry such dire forebodings? The flower, looking as frail as its tenuous fingerhold on life, with hairline veins on the underside of its duck-egg blue petals, a pure white throat, a greenish spur and notched leaves, blooms in May and June in the fens of Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, and among damp grassy hollows on the limestone of western Ireland from Fermanagh to Clare. Hounded from the fens by drainage, chivvied into its one remaining habitat on newly disturbed peat in Huntingdonshire, the fen violet has triumphantly reappeared, after sixty years' absence, among the peat diggins of Cambridgeshire. And in Ireland, because it grows near the turloughs - those strange lakes with fluctuating water levels that lie among limestone rocks - it's known as the turlough violet. Thankfully in other parts of the world this endearing little creeping herb still exists.

             The marsh violet has a delicate face. Pale lilac with darker honey guides spread across the petals like a delta, the plant lives up to its squelchy name by perpetuating itself with creeping rhizomes in bogs, marshes, fens and wet heaths.

             The next five are pansies. It is impossible not to gush over their expressive faces. "Adorable" sounds sickening, but that is how they look. Each is a winning as the last. Enjoyment, surprise, alertness, reticence or self-deprecation - they reveal it all.

             Though the plants are small --some often skulk among leaves or tufty grasses- differences in appearance and habit make it easy to distinguish the wild pansy from the violets. The latter, which must painstakingly be searched for are synonymous with modesty, shyness and all those fairly low-key attributes that have long been associated with this flower. And while two of the pansies may be said to possess such qualities, the other three (including a subspecies)--the mountain, wild and dune pansies--though they could never be called immodest, are relatively bolder. As their names suggest, they go in for a more open lifestyle. Although they share with the violet nectar-filled spurs and radiating honey guides on their petals, pansy flowers differ in having flat, more rounded faces which, in most cases, are larger and more vividly coloured; and while pansy leaves aren't dissimilar from those of violets, their stipules are distinctive, being leaflike and deeply lobed.

             If appearance were all, then you only need to look at the beautiful, enquiring face of a bright yellow or violet-coloured mountain pansy to realize that this is where demureness all but vanishes and a hint of showiness begins. No wonder the cultivation of many strains of our garden pansies started here.

             The mountain pansy is bright yellow but occasionally, to baffle you, the flat flowers may be purple or blotched, arbitrarily lined with honey guides on its naive and cheerful face. The flower grows in upland, often calcium-deficient grassland, and on rocky ledges in every country north of a line between the Humber and the Severn.

             Some modern garden pansies have evolved from hybrids between this one and heartsease. According to which way you face, show and fancy pansies have been its ultimate fate or triumph.

             Now we come to heartsease whose name ought to shower us with blessings. The wild pansy, V. tricolor, appears everywhere there are recording enthusiasts, in the garden or in the wild: "It groweth often among the corne," wrote William Turner in 1548. And it still does. Deep purple, light mauve, yellow or combinations of these, this flower seeks acid, light or sandy waste ground, rarely in the south and then only on mountains. Judging by the long list of local names with love and kiss in them, this plant provokes particularly endearing associations. To name a few: Love-in-Idleness, Leap-up-and-Kiss-Me and Kiss-me-Love-at-the-Garden-Gate speak of a rural idyll well suited to a retiring flower known as heartsease. Oberon, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, squeezed the juice from Love-in-Idleness into the eye of Titania so that on waking she would fall in love with Bottom. Why it should have so many love names is not clear, but in contrast to this jolly wantonness the herb also has a pious image: thought by some to have the appearance of three faces under a hood, it is also known as "Trinitatis herba" --the Blessed Trinity flower.

             Among the monumental range of research undertaken by Darwin during his long lifetime (which included a study of the life cycle of earthworms), he studied the way transplanted heartsease so instantly changed colour and markings, and yet could return to their original colours before the end of the summer. Such capriciousness was a bane and a boon. In the wild, in different soil and climatic conditions, identifying Viola species could become very hit-and-miss. On the other hand heartsease, with agreeable facility, could breed a whole chiaroscuro of offspring. The violet family are apt to lose their head when it comes to procreation, and crossbreed avidly, which accounts for the numerous progeny of pretty hybrids that turn up in our gardens, their parentage unrecorded until it is too late for the botanist intent on nomenclature. Even in the gardens of Buckingham Palace, Dr. David Bellamy has discovered three vagrants: the common dog-violet, the field pansy, and, let's hope it works, heartsease.

             The dune pansy (V. Subsp. Curtisii), is almost like a small mountain pansy. Yellow, blue-violet or parti-coloured, this perennial has flowers with such stand up petals it has a prick-eared expression which is most appealing. By adapting to inhospitable terrain it grows in dunes and grassy places close to the sea in parts of Britain, as well as the chilly shores of the Baltic.

             The twelfth and most self-effacing of the lot is the field pansy. Usually a yellow as pale as clotted cream, this annual is commonly found on cultivated or waste ground in Europe or as remotely far flung as in Siberia, Iran, Iraq, and North Africa. "This is one of the arable 'weeds' which has resisted elimination by modern herbicides," says Jo Dunn. "When the capsules explode, the seeds may be spread as far as two metres." Luckily, these tactics help to ensure that the plant survives But only those partial to bending over as they walk the countryside would have the engrossed patience to notice the flower as Jo does. As she succinctly remarks: "It's a small, rather overlooked pansy, which needs to have a hand-lens focused on its face before it can be appreciated!"

             The last of the tribe is the dwarf pansy: a very rare annual with a hooded cream or pale violet face, its flower is minute, sometimes no more than 1 inch in height, but it has great charm. Jo Dunn admits she has only seen this pansy once, by crawling on hands and knees with a lens at the ready: "I marvelled that anything so small could survive!" according to the ominous and somewhat puzzling words of the Red Data Book, it "will be endangered only if digging for sand ceases and rabbits become extinct." For unlike so many wild and garden plants - it thrives on disturbance.

             Whether grown from seed or by division the full range of violaceae for the garden means you have your hands on an infinity of variations. The colour range is past defining; so many of the species of Viola from all over the world, not just the thirteen I've listed here, have produced superb cultivars.

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