MY (ADMITTEDLY WEEDY) sweet violets are blooming. They are exceptionally fragrant — I love them so. Which is a very good thing because, even if I wanted to, I don’t think I could ever get rid of them. Scattered along the fringes of my garden’s beds and borders, today’s plants are the progeny of a single 4-inch nursery pot purchased in the late 1990s. They have survived complete neglect and massive renovation in equal measure: See “weedy” above. I’m going with resilient.
Various named cultivars of sweet violets from the turn of the last century endure, a horticultural remnant of a time when handheld bouquets were sold on street corners. My violets are common; their stems are short, which means the slug-gnawed blossoms are usually splashed with mud — hardly fodder for romantic nosegays and posies.
Parma violets are the aristocrats of the genus, with a swoon-worthy fragrance. Dating back to 1870, ‘Duchesse de Parme’ is still grown for its double lavender flowers with creamy white centers held on generous 6-inch stems. ‘Comte de Brazza’, a ruffled white flowering form from 1883, once was prized for bouquets and corsages.
Slightly less sturdy than common Viola odorata, Parma violets are hardy to around 20 degrees F. Grow these plants in containers that can be sheltered in cold weather, and you’ll be in a position to bury your nose in the heady spring blossoms without getting down on all fours in the garden.
Other than their remarkably resilient constitution, the singular appeal of my very humble Viola odorata is the way they fill the garden with a sweet, slightly cloying perfume.
The fragrance of sweet violets can be detected only in brief, intense intervals. One moment you’ll catch the powdery aroma on the breeze — then nothing, just mud and wet knees in the chilly spring garden.
OK; so it only seems like magic. The plant’s fragrance contains ionones, compounds that temporarily desensitize scent receptors in the nose, literally blinding your perception of its perfume. Once the nerves recover, you’ll catch another whiff … and so on, and so on. It’s transient but lovely, like catching a momentary sun break in late winter.
On a more practical note, every part of the sweet violet plant — leaves, flowers, roots and seeds — is used in herbal remedies. Traditional culinary creations include sugared petals and violet syrup. If, as ancient Greeks believed, violets can dispel anger and support sound sleep, I’m all in, but there will be no candying-of-petals on my watch.
Hardy perennials, sweet violets begin blooming in late winter and continue producing their delicate spurred flowers for four to six weeks in cool spring conditions. Plants grow best in fertile, moist, well-drained soil. That said, my plants do just fine in a sandy loam and tolerate the dry shade beneath a large conifer.
Sweet violets planted where they’ll get early-season sun bloom a bit earlier, but benefit from shade in summer. My best plants skirt the ground beneath the blueberries, where clumps of bright-green, heart-shaped leaves remain mostly evergreen; occasional shearing freshens summer-tired foliage. Another clean whack in late winter, along with a dose of organic slug bait, sets the stage for the show in early spring.
As lasting as the plants are in the garden and enduring in romantic nostalgia, old-fashioned sweet violets are rarely found on nursery shelves, although plants and seed are available through catalogs. So each winter when the plants are in bloom, I like to pot up a few divisions for sharing with loved ones.