March 10 2021

Violets are keeping secrets. Many plants are up to strange and wonderful things that we don’t normally notice, but violets really are secretive little buggers. I’ve been growing those ubiquitous Johnny Jump Ups for forty years and just learned about their hidden subterranean flowers. Called cleistogamos, for closed marriage, these chaste little flowers have no color, don’t pollinate, no nectar, no petals, and never rise up into the sun. Yet they produce seeds, each a genetic clone since there’s no cross pollinating going on. Violet’s regular flowers do cross pollinate, of course, and that is why I keep seeing variations in their colors.

One can’t help but wonder if those little hidden flowers area the source of the term “shrinking violet”, shy little things that they are. But no, it’s just that the original wild violets were small and hidden in the woods. Also, violets are symbolic of the Virgin Mary and the twin sister of Apollo, a virgin nymph, in Greek mythology-I had to wonder if there was a connection to those hidden sexless flowers. If there is, it’s lost in ancient history as far as I could find.

Violets have a couple more tricks up their sleeves, one is that their seeds have little packets or blobs called eliaosomes, attached that ants like to eat. These busy ants carry their food home to share, eat the good stuff and throw the seed away, thus planting violets in new places. If you catch me lying on the ground with a magnifying glass, you’ll know I’m busy watching ants propagating violets.

Violet flowers (the regular ones) contain a chemical called ionine which temporarily desensitizes our sense of smell, which is why we can’t smell them after one sniff. Why this would be biologically expedient I can’t imagine, nor could I find any explanation.

There are over 500 species of violets, genus name Viola, including pansies, Johnny Jump Ups, Corsican violets, and wild native violets. They come in colors from light purple (violet!) to dark purple, yellow, white, pink and many combinations of all these colors. By the way, African violets are not violets, they are Saintpaulia.

Violas are edible, high in vitamin A and C, have medicinal uses, one of which is a treatment for dry coughs. They are delightful additions to salad or candied on top of cupcakes. One should not eat the roots or seeds though, they are poisonous and can cause stomach and intestinal upset. I once made a very pretty violet syrup, stewing a pot of flowers covered with water, straining, and adding sugar. I put a shot of the syrup in a glass of carbonated water (vodka optional) for a beautiful violet colored drink. A celebration of spring! It doesn’t hurt to know that another name for violet, specifically Johnny Jump Ups, is heartsease, because it’s a symbol for everlasting love and devotion. Shakespeare mentions them in a love potion in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and also in ‘Hamlet'.

Violets are the first and last flowers to bloom in my gardens, frost doesn’t bother them at all, and for this and their cheery faces I tolerate their prolific ways. I do pull and dispose of most of them, but really, it’s hard to have too many violets.

Viola tricolor-Johnny Jump Ups

Viola corsica-Corsican violet

Viola adunca-Early Blue violet, Montana native

Viola orbiculata-Round Leaf Violet, Montana native, yellow

Viola purpurea-Yellow Mountain Violet, Montana native

Viola odorata-Parma violets, scented, zones 4or 5-9