The Violet Gazette
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Previously published in The Violet Gazette Spring 2000, V1-2, P2
Written by:  Arthur O. Tucker, Ph.D.
© 1995, 2000 All Rights Reserved.

             The popular books tell us that the sweet violets are Viola odorata. No problem, right? Well, probing the botanical literature reveals a far more complex pattern of misidentification and hybridization involving several species.
Viola odorata IMAGE
Viola odorata

             Viola odorata L. is native to Europe but naturalized in North America. Viola ignobilis Rupr. from the Caucasus and Iran is similar to V. odorata. I don't think that enough natural variation of these two species has been used in breeding, and the botanist-geneticist could introduce some novel variations.

             Unlike most of the sweet violets, the Parma violets are not hardy above USDA Zone 8 and withstand more sun: these differences suggest a more southern origin. R. D. Meikle in 1963 was probably the first to suggest that the Parma violets are V. alba Besser from central and southern Europe, particularly Italy. Thus, 'Marie Louise,' 'Swanley White,' 'Lady Hume Campbell,' and 'Parma' are all derived from V. alba not V. odorata. The parma violets were the principal violets raised near Rhinebeck (New York), which once boasted 400 greenhouses filled with violets. More breeding should be done on this species and its natural variation including subsp. Alba, subsp. Scotophylla (Jordan) Nyman, and subsp. dehnhardtii (Ten.) W. Becke.

             The so-called yellow sweet violet, 'Sulfurea,' is not scented and may not be V. odorata. This has sometimes been classified as V. Vilmoriniana, a name without botanical standing.

             The native Confederate violet of North America, V. sororia Willd.(V. papilionacea Pursh), has often been pawned off as V. odorata, but differs in its scentless flowers, lack of runners, and abundant cleistogamous (unopened, self-fertile) flowers that shed enough seeds to classify this species as a weed. Breeding of V. sororia with V. odorata yielded the scentless 'Governor Herrick' and the misnamed 'Frey's Fragrant'.

Viola odorata IMAGE
Russian Violet

             The sweet violet has also been bred with the Russian violet, V. suavis Bieb., which is native from Russia to northwestern France. The Russian violet is a hardy violet very similar to the North American Confederate violet but sweetly scented. The Russian violet was introduced into England c.1820; an early, improved form was 'Russian superb.' 'The Czar' appeared as an improved form in 1863 in Middlesex, and about the same time another form of V. suavis, 'Wilson,' was introduced from Algeria and Turkey into Provence, France. Viola catalonica Becker from northeastern Spain, V. jagellonica Zapal. From Poland, and V. adriatica from the northwestern section of the former Yugoslavia are probably natural hybrids of V. suavis and V. alba and should be sought for cultivation. At least artificial hybridization of V. suavis x V. alba should be possible.

             The genus Viola includes about 450 species. Exactly how many are scented is unknown, but some other species might also be listed here and should be sought for further horticultural development. Viola cornuta, the horned violet, has highly scented flowers lacking the sweetness of V. odorata. Other species indicated to be fragrant in the botanical literature include:

V. ambigua Walds. And Kit From East-Central Russia to Macedonia and Eastern Austria
V. mirabilis L. From Europe
V. willkommii R. de Roemer From Northeastern Spain
V. jooi Janka From Central Romania
V. pinnata L. From the Alps
V. diversifolia (D.C.) W.Becker From the Eastern and Central Pyrenees
V. fragrans Sieber From Greece and Crete.

Brainerd, E. 1921. Violets of North America. Vermont Agric.Exp.Sta.Bull.224
Brainerd, E.1924. Some Natural Violet Hybrids of North America. Vermont Agric.Exp.Sta.Bull.239
Coombs, R.E. 1979. Parma violets, Plantsman 1:167-176
Coombs, R.E. 1981. Cultivated violets: Are they really unscented? Plantsman 1:167-176
Coombs, R.E. 1981 Violets: The History and Cultivation of Scented Violets, Croom Helm, London
Gregory, E.S. 1912. British Violets: A Monograph, W. Heffer & Sons, Cambridge
Houston, J. 1981. The shrinking violet industry. Horticulture 59 (3): 20-23
McKinney, L.E. 1992. A taxonomic revision of the acaulescent blue violets (Viola) of North America. Sida Bot. Misc. No. 70
McLeod, J.A. 1983. The Book of Sweet Violets. Wild Woodbine Studio, New South Wales
Meikle. R.D. 1963. Garden Flowers. Eyre & Spottiswoode, London
Perfect, E. J. 1965. Russian Violets. J. Roy. Hort. Soc. 90: 439-445
Russell, N.H. 1965. Violets (Viola) of Central and Eastern United States: An introductory survey. Sida 2:1-113
Solbrig, O.T., S. J. Newell, and D. T. Kincaid. 1980. The population biology of the genus Viola. I. The demography of Viola sororia. J.Ecol. 68:521-546
 Todd, E.E.1930. A short survey of the genus Viola. Part I. TheNominium and dischidium section. J. Roy. Hort. Soc. 55:23-243
Todd, E. E. 1932. A short survey of the genus Viola. Part II. The Chamaemelanium and Melanium sections. J. Roy. Hort. Soc. 57:332-220

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