During springtime in Colorado, gardens are suddenly filled with an explosion of flowers and blossoms that bring us excitement after the long winter.
Among all this cheerfulness, the violet — with its simple appearance and aromatic fragrance — is one of the plants most loved and cultivated by people for centuries. ‘Longing for Spring’ is a song composed by Amadeus Mozart about a little boy who is looking forward to seeing the flowering violets in his garden. Probably, this violet was the most common violet we often see in our garden: Sweet Violet (Viola odorata).
This perennial ground cover was traded in markets in Athens as long ago as 400 B.C. It was sold for its fragrance and edible leaves and flower, although the seeds and roots of violets are not edible.
In the Middle East, the flowers were made into candies which were enjoyed by elites. Much later, in the 19th century, Frederic Chopin favored the sugar-coated violet flower candies every morning in a cup of hot chocolate to start his day (no wonder he came up with copious amounts of his wonderfully romantic creations).
Unlike its popular ornamental annual cousins Pansy (Viola x wittorokiana) and Johnny-Jump-Up (Viola tricolor), Viola odorata has gotten a bad rap from some homeowners as it has a habit of spreading by seeds and runners. However, the popular cultivar ‘Konigin Charlotte’ with its classic violet flower and `Rosina’ with pink flower are the cultivar relatively well behaved in the garden. I personally never had a problem with this violet as long as I monitor my gardens often and confine them in the right spots with sun to semi-shade. We sometime see the weedy violet with lavender and white bi-colored flower take over turf areas. We think it is an unidentified hybrid of Viola odorata. Do not plant this type in your garden.
The `Purple leaved Labrador violet’ (Viola labradorica purpurea) has a simpler appearance yet possess beautiful purple leaves adding color to shade gardens even after its flowers are gone in late spring. I have been warned this violet might spread in the garden, however, my co-workers and I think it was confused with Viola riviniara that has identical looks and a vigorous spreading habit. Contrary to these testimonials, I have had a hard time keeping `Purple leaved Labrador violet’ in my gardens, as they have often disappeared over the years, regardless of the fact I’ve given them adequate moisture and sheltered light in semi-shaded areas. When I acquire Viola labradorica purpurea, I always make sure to get it from reputable sources so as not to be mixed up with a wild impersonator.
The less fragrant V. Corsica is an excellent violet for Colorado gardens because it is drought tolerant and has a longer flowering performance with blueish purple showy flowers in sunny spots in the gardens. It is part of the Plant Select® program.
Although much simpler in its appearance, one of the quintessential violets is V. adunca. This North American native perennial can be spotted easily in the forest and meadows while hiking as a sign of the arrival of the short summer season in the Colorado Montane and Alpine.
There are about 600 species of violets around the globe from temperate climate to desert, even in steppe. Many of them are a flower well worth enjoying. As a famous quote by Mark Twain says: “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”
Ebi Kondo is curator of the Japanese Gardens at Denver Botanic Gardens. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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