Have you ever smelled sweet violets?
If you live in Southern California, the chances are slim when considering the probability of engaging in this unique olfactory experience. During almost forty years of local plant observation, I have visited nearly every botanical garden in Southern California as well as hundreds of backyard and front yard gardens, but have never sniffed a sweet violet. Maybe they are growing somewhere that I missed. If so, please advise.
There is only one Southern California locale where you are guaranteed, if you look closely, to encounter sweet violets (Viola odorata), because they grow wild there, and that would be the San Gabriel Mountains — in the vicinity of Wrightwood, Crestline, Lake Arrowhead, and Big Bear. And so if you tend a garden in any of these towns, you can happily plant sweet violets and they should thrive. I have not personally discovered sweet violets in the San Gabriel Mountains but rely on the evidence brought forth in “The Jepson Manual: Vascular Plants of California,” which is the most authoritative guide to phytogeography (mapping of plant species) in the state, whose data base is accessible online at ucjeps.berkeley.edu.
Sweet violet seeds may be ordered from vendors on eBay and Amazon. Fifty seeds cost around two dollars.
Curiously, Sunset Western Garden Book, considered to be the horticultural bible where gardeners in the Western US, and especially California, are concerned, claims that sweet violets can grow in every Western climate zone (1-24), which clearly includes all of Southern California. Maybe there is some way of making sweet violets happy of which I am unaware. If anyone has succeeded in growing them, let us know the formula for your success.
Sweet violets are distinguished by the presence of ionones, chemical compounds with a unique effect on the brain’s scent receptors. What happens is this: ionones activate these receptors for a few seconds but then desensitize them so the fragrance disappears. Another few seconds pass, and the receptors are made active again, but quickly shut down again as before. Thus, even if you are not enamored with the violet’s scent — and some people don’t like it, calling it powdery, woodsy, or reminiscent of cut grass — it comes and goes so you cannot tire of it. Still, ionones do blend well with other floral fragrances and thus are present in many perfumes.
I arrived at the subject of sweet violets through the contemplation of another violet species (Viola sororia), whose winter blooming cycle has recently begun. Known as dooryard violet, this species is a doppelganger for sweet violet except that it has no scent and it grows wherever you plant it, although it does prefer partial shade to full sun exposures. While dooryard violet could be classified as somewhat invasive, it can be kept under control through hand-pulling and shearing back to the ground during summer when it withers.
Both sweet and dooryard violets are perennial ground covers that grow around six inches tall, spread vegetatively by means of rhizomes, and are adept at self-sowing, too. Leaves are heart-shaped and flowers resemble diminutive lavender, purple, and occasionally white butterflies. Leaves are edible and medicinal and, when dried, maybe used for making tea, and flowers are edible, too. Sweet violet does rank higher than dooryard violet where gustatory and healing properties are concerned.
Tip of the Week: Pansy (Viola x wittrockiana) and Johnny-jump-up (Viola tricolor), whose flowers look like pint-sized pansies, are staples of the annual winter garden but may last through the spring where faded flowers are regularly removed and they are planted in a partial sun exposure. Although their petals’ velvety texture may give you the impression that they cannot stand the cold, the opposite is true and they will even survive some exposure to freezing temperatures. Their flowers, often bi-colored, are edible and are used as garnishes for salads, soups, and other dishes. The blue and yellow Johnny-jump-ups, also known as wild pansies, sometimes self-sow and, as new plants are constantly coming along, provide color throughout the year.