Think wild violets
When we first moved to central Washington state, I was blessed one day to discover a now defunct garden center with a Japanese name, Pagoda. How I grew to love that place! It was laid out like an old-fashioned country garden with paths leading from the front gate — yes, it had an actual front gate made of unpainted wood turned grey with the years — past sheds to tall ornamental trees in the “back forty.” Each shed housed its own specialty, whether annuals or perennials. One day I found flats of violets! Whether gathered from woodlands in the Cascade foothills, hybridized, or sown from seed, I didn’t know and I didn’t ask. I simply bought a flat and took it home.
I tucked my violet plants into a front dooryard bed. Through the decades they’ve multiplied to the point that I’ve been able to transplant them to various other beds, including the herb garden, and shared with neighbors and friends. I even sent bedding plants to my daughter in the Midwest and my son on the Pacific coast. That’s what old-fashioned gardeners have always done.
Our native American woodland violets are indigenous to temperate regions of the country, dying back in late summer heat only to surprise and delight us when they return the following spring, even after harsh winters in the Midwest. First to appear are their heart-shaped leaves in thick bunches spread through underground rhizomes. Purple blue flowers begin to uncurl on slender stems in late winter or early spring. They require little care once established in garden beds rich in organic matter, other than watering when the green leaves wilt in summer heat.
Once the leaves have dried out and turned pale brown, it’s time to cut them back to the ground. Violets do have a tendency toward invasiveness in lawns as well as garden beds. So much the better! Simply dig and divide some rhizomes if you want to propagate or share with your neighbors. I leave the ones that pop up in my lawn because, come early spring, they’re quite charming, scattered about for passerby to enjoy. The yard man will mow them down soon enough.
Violets sometimes perform well in clay pots or urns on the patio, or in wood window boxes. I have a clay planter on my back step, filled with rhizomes that sprout every spring, without fail. All I do is keep the planter watered. Violets are not, however, viable as houseplants other than, say, in an Easter bowl of mixed early spring bulbs such as little jonquils, narcissus, grape hyacinth, with perhaps a bit of trailing ivy for added leaf texture similar to the violet’s heart-shaped leaves.
True violets have been cultivated at least since 500 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) for flavoring and medicinal purposes. The flowers were only incidental, the same as with herbs. Bedding violets are hybrids of Viola cornuta. Our wild violets descend from the wild “sweet violets” of Europe (Viola ordorata).
Kissing cousins to violets and pansies are the dainty Johnny-jump-ups. They pop up seemingly everywhere, even in garden nursery pots, especially pansies. I think they’re cute and would look charming in a miniature vase on a dolls house table. The plant is a cross between Viola luea and Viola tricolor –– purple/lavender/yellow — but much more proliferate and more heat tolerant.
All these various cousins with their Latin names are fascinating to study. However, since I am not a botanist, I’d rather just enjoy them in my garden. Did you know that they are among the rare edible flowers, along with squash blossoms. Add them to salads, decorate a frosted birthday cake, freeze in ice cubes for summer lemonade.