â€śI would give you violets,â€ť says Ophelia to her brother Laertes. â€śbut they withered when my father died.â€ť
As today is fatherâ€™s day, this quotation of flower(and man)-mad Ophelia seemed an appropriate introduction to my violet essay. I started this weeks ago when violets were still regularly bloomingâ€”but they continue blooming now and then through the summer and even more in the fall, so I donâ€™t think the topic is untimely even without the Fatherâ€™s Day link, but what a great excuse to pay tribute to my dad. My father died twenty-six years ago, long before I thought much about violets or knew Hamlet very wellâ€”but Ophelia knew her flowers, so Iâ€™ll take her word for their withering upon her fatherâ€™s death. Actually, Shakespeare merely incorporated the symbolism that the flowers had accrued long before he penned those words.
Despite that association, I welcome their heart-shaped leaves and pansy-like blooms each spring. (Garden pansies began as Europeâ€™s wild tri-colored violas (v. tricolor and v. lutea), commonly sold in the U.S. as â€śJohnny Jump-Ups,â€ť before the hybridizers got a hold of them.) In my quest for a lawn needing mowing only once or twice a year, I have let the violets take over as much real estate as they can.
Common violets (V. odorata), also known by other names such as wild sweet violet and heartease (and I always thought they were called "blue violets," though they are definitely purple), are native to Europe but now grow all over North America, as do about 75 other species, â€śmost of them nativeâ€ť (Sanders). Obviously, the aromatic flowers of the common variety are responsible for their scientific name. â€śViolaâ€ť is perhaps a reference to Ion, the founder of Athens, whose city symbol was the violet. â€śIonâ€ť is similar to â€śIo,â€ť the Greek Goddess who Zeus fell in love with and then turned into a white heifer who fed on sweet white violets (Sanders). Even Greek Gods have to keep peace in the household, and Hera was not very happy about Io.
The plantâ€™s sweet perfection explains how it has become imbued with such qualities. Why is it that I used to yank their heart-shaped leaves from my grass? How did I believe their curves, color, and fragrance â€śruinedâ€ť the boring expanse of straight green blades? The violets and I have come a long way since those days.
Lawns are over-rated. Iâ€™ve discussed this before in â€śWeed or Wonder?â€ť Violets are among the showiest examples of plants that might pop up if one does not blanket oneâ€™s yard in chemicals, ostensibly to keep out the undesirables. What, after all, is undesirable about a violet?
Violets first pled their case one spring when I had the energy to rake dead winter leaves from a copse behind my house. This small open woodland, surrounded by tall linden (basswood) and sugar maple, normally appeared as brown as those dead leaves, but that spring the cleared ground erupted in green and purple, an enchanting expanse of small leaves and flowers whose beauty has resulted in hothouse hybrids galore. And these little amethyst gems appeared there, unbidden, formerly hidden beneath tree litter but now reaching for the filtered sunlight in all their purple glory. As Iâ€™ve since learned, violets like cool, moist soil, and my place in the shadow of Savage Mountain fits the bill.
Their next ambush on my sensibilities happened beneath the giant Norwegian spruce that dominates my front yard, a tree apparently planted by the family who first built the dilapidated cottage I call home, the tree a now majestic woodland soul and home of many birds. Pine needles and long, flattish, decaying cones are apparently the perfect environment for the sweet white violet. As pretty as the leaves and flowers of the common purple wood violets in the back yard are, these surpass both in delicate form and beauty. Once I recognized this, I began saving myself the trouble of mowing around that big tree trunk. I hand pick blades of grass that dare to mar these charming clusters.
Iâ€™m still waiting to see my first yellow violetâ€”so if anyone knows where they grow, please clue me in! I wonâ€™t pick themâ€”Iâ€™d just like to see them growing in the wild. I have seen the birdsâ€™ foot violet (V. pedata), a variation on the common violet rather subtle but wonderful once discoveredâ€”most evident in its foliage, which is feathery and fernlike, rather than round or heart-shaped. A single one bloomed in a mowed field near the Savage River one summer a few years ago. I left it there, hoping it would proliferate, but I havenâ€™t checked the site lately.
And thatâ€™s it. Iâ€™m ready for more species on my violet life list.
Violets are pretty special weeds, and not just because they are pretty. Both leaves and flowers are edible. The mild-tasting leaves (also described in some sources as bitter) and even the blooms are great for salads, and the leaves will thicken soups. The already sweet flowers have long been sugared and used to decorate cakes and confections. If its culinary uses donâ€™t convince you, dear reader, of its worth, perhaps its medicinal qualities will.
According to Bonika.com, â€śSweet violet has a long and proven history of folk use, especially in the treatment of cancer and whooping cough. It also contains salicylic acid, which is used to make aspirin. It is therefore effective in the treatment of headaches, migraine and insomnia. The whole plant is anti-inflammatory, diaphoretic, diuretic, emollient, expectorant, and laxative. It is taken internally in the treatment of bronchitis, respiratory catarrh, coughs, asthma, and cancer of the breast, lungs or digestive tract. Externally, it is used to treat mouth and throat infections.â€ť Going back to the Greeks (and undoubtedly before), violets were used â€śto induce sleep, to strengthen the heart, and to calm angerâ€ť (Sanders). Its fragrance has been used in perfumes, cosmetics, and breath fresheners, and a pigment extracted from its flowers is used in tests for Ph (Botanika.com). Now, call that a weed if you will, but I call that a wonder.
Best of all, in my view (lest the end of the world is nigh, which will cause me to alter my priorities), these little plants can serve as a groundcoverâ€”an exciting use for me, given my determination to eventually replace my lawn with diminutive plants that keep out weeds I consider undesirable (and, yes, a few of those do exist). True, common violets can grow a foot high when left undisturbed, but a quick mowing will soon cover the ground with new, little sprouts. In most areas in my mostly woodland yard, the large heart-shaped leaves are an excellent garden companion to hostas, which cost much more than the zero I pay for violet volunteers.
For a thorough discussion of the violetâ€™s folklore, go to Jack Sandersâ€™ The Secrets of Wildflowers on Google Books. Better yet, as Iâ€™ve said before, buy the book, which I bought at Main Street Books in Frostburg some years ago. It is full of lovely photos, as well as scientific and literary information, myth and folklore. The flower is not only associated with death; it has also long been associated with purity and love.
I recently read Edith Whartonâ€™s The Age of Innocence, one of those books my English masterâ€™s degree education had missed, somehow, though I certainly heard plenty of references to it. In the 1920 novelâ€™s opening chapter, May Welland, New York socialite Newland Archerâ€™s young, innocent fiancĂ©, holds a bouquet of white violets heâ€™d given her for a night at the opera. He sends her a bouquet each day until he finds his fancy addled by her married cousinâ€™s scandalous arrival from France; one day, he forgets to send a bouquet to May, signaling the impending death of his attraction, slow that it is and, actually, only presumed. Thus, in the same book, violetsâ€™ two prevalent emblems are employed.
As Sanders reports, Josephine Bonaparte carried a bouquet of violets at her wedding, and she grew a garden full of them, which, of course, became a European obsession afterwards. Napoleon so loved the flower he became known as Caporal Violette. I guess that gets us back to death again.
And, now, back to fatherâ€™s day: Thank you, Dad, for your integrity, dedication to your family, and brilliant mind. I miss you every day, and I have no doubt that any violets daring to bloom on March 9, 1985, wilted the moment you stepped off the planet.
Photos are by Mary Spalding. I apologize for the poor qualityâ€”I need to get a better camera! I hope to add more photos by Lisa Sheirer to this article.
Information on the culinary and medicinal qualities of plants is for educational purposes only. Do not ingest any plant without experience in plant identification!