Violets Are Meant for Winter Gardens

sweet violet (Viola odorata)

sweet violet (Viola odorata)

yellow 'Giant' pansies

yellow ‘Giant’ pansies (Viola x wittrockiana)

If you are about to buy a house, it is a good idea to wait a year until doing any new work in the garden. You never know what exotic bulbs might be hiding in the ground, and you never know what that drab little plant in the corner might look like several months from now.
For instance, if you had been introduced to the sweet violet (Viola odorata) in August, you would have been puzzled to know why anyone should want to plant such a thing; you might have pulled it out.
In August, the leaves of sweet violets lose their lustre. Where too much sun reaches them, they turn yellow, the result of heat and spider-mite damage. When given lots of water, they grow quickly and threaten to overrun the shade garden. Upon observing violets in such a state, you would be inclined to banish them from your garden forever, unaware of the beauty they would bring in January.
Those who attempt to eradicate the sweet violet repent of this unreasonableness when winter comes. When you see its dark green, heart-shaped leaves and butterfly flowers poking up in between, you appreciate the indestructability of this plant.
In fact, the sweet violet is classified as a weed in some quarters. Perhaps this is why it is not sold in garden centers. Oh yes, you occasionally will see cultivars of the sweet violet, all with enchanting names, but in our hot valleys they just won’t grow. Unless you know someone who has it, the only way of acquiring the species (wild type) violet is through a mail-order nursery.
The unusual sex life of the violet helps to explain its persistence. The showy flowers it produces this time of year do not set seed because the honey bees that would pollinate these flowers are inactive. However, in the summer, this deficiency is more than compensated for – by another kind of flower, which never opens, is hidden among the leaves and is nondescript, yet self- pollinates and produces numerous seeds that self-sow unerringly. The violet also has ropy rhizomes that help it endure temperature extremes and assist in its invasion of the shade garden.
Although the violet is somewhat unwieldy, it is still herbaceous and can be kept under control without undue exertion. As soon as the leaves begin to fade, usually in midsummer, you can cut or shear them down without damaging the plant. In fact, this is one way to ensure an abundance of blooms the following winter. Sweet violets are nearly always purple, but occasionally you will find a clump with white or rose-colored flowers.
The sweet violet, at least in Los Angeles, does not produce the strong fragrance for which it is known. This plant is not native to the Western Hemisphere, which might explain its lack of scent here. When plants are grown outside their natural habitat, some of their characteristics may not be fully expressed. Even though the genes of a violet growing here are identical to those of a counterpart growing in Italy, the Italian violet may be more fragrant. Nurture (environment) is often more important than nature (heredity) in a plant’s development.
All parts of the violet are edible. The violet contains a glucoside with medicinal properties, as well as salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin.
If the color of the violet’s flowers is too predictable, you also can decorate your salad with pansies (Viola X Wittrockiana), which are its close cousins. Soft velvet petals belie the character of the pansy – which is no
shrinking violet. Pansies can be planted in the fullest sun your garden has to offer, although they can also handle some shade.
Pansies are extremely hardy. In Santa Clarita, I have seen pansies with a layer of frost on their petals at 7 a.m. defrosted and glowing a few hours later in the noonday sun.
The sturdiest pansies are not the ones with the black markings or faces (sometimes called majestic giants). The solid color – especially yellow – and small-petaled types produce more flowers, take more heat and last longer than the fancy, large-petaled giants. It is possible to plant yellow pansies in October that still will be flowering in June.
Like all winter annual flowers, pansies should have their faded flowers continuously removed in order to bloom nonstop. Every other day is not too often to carry out this procedure, which involves pinching off the petiole (flower stem) at its base. Be careful not to try and tear off the petiole; you might pull the whole plant out in the process.
Tip of the week: If you have accumulated a large leaf pile, you can turn it into a rich, dark compost by mixing in a few bags of steer manure. Keep the pile moist and turn it over every few days. Within a month or two, you will have created a wonderful mulch and soil amendment.

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