Sandy’s Garden ... Sweet Violets

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

I had written a piece about the herb basil.

I checked it over for accuracy, checked the spelling and the grammar and had sat back well satisfied when a nagging doubt entered my head, sending me to the records of previous columns. And yes, a little under three years ago I had indeed written a very similar piece about basil, a fact which never entered my head until several hours of industry had been, well, wasted. And, while I was contemplating this memory failure, an old song about a different aromatic plant came to mind. “There once was a farmer who took a young miss / In back of the barn where he gave her a lecture / On horses and chickens and eggs / And told her that she had such beautiful / Manners that suited a girl of her charms / A girl that he wanted to take in his / Washing and ironing and then if she did / They could get married and raise lots of / Sweet violets, Sweeter than the roses / Covered all over from head to toe / Covered all over with sweet violets.”

These words were written by Joseph Emmet in 1882, are a bowdlerised version of an old folk song and are a splendid example of what is called a ‘censored rhyme’, where the anticipated rhyme is replaced by an unexpected … but sensible … word leading to the next couplet. And of course there is a plant called the sweet violet or, to give it its botanical name

Viola odorata, the generic name Viola being the Latin name for a number of scented flowers while the specific name odorata means ‘sweet-scented’. This particular genus of the viola came originally from Europe, North Africa and Asia and was certainly known in England in Shakespeare’s time, the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. In the bard’s play Twelfth Night, Duke Orsino speaks these lines: “If music be the food of love, play on; / Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken, and so die. / That strain again! it had a dying fall: / O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet south, / That breathes upon a bank of violets, / Stealing and giving odour!”

But what do the words, ‘stealing and giving odour’ mean? If, gentle reader, you hold a sweet violet to your nose to enjoy the scent, you will discover that your perception of the perfume fades away to nothing as the chemicals which account for the plant’s aroma block the receptors in your nose; turn away from the flower for a moment to allow the receptors to recover and, as if by magic, you can again enjoy the scent. But you will not have the chance to try that this year, for the sweet violet flowers from late February to early May, its fragrant violet-coloured, pink or white flowers gracing the Spring garden. A small plant, growing only between 10cm and 15cm high … say, 4 to 6 inches in old money … the delicate flowers are only 2½cm … say, 1 inch … across.

Viola odorata, sweet viola, sweet violet … and it doesn’t matter if you prefer to use its botanical name ‘viola’ or the anglicised version ‘violet’ … is perennial and likes to form a loose mat of plants, preferring full sun although it will manage in partial shade. Its favourite soil is moist but well-drained and it is an excellent choice for a wild or woodland garden. Those of us whose estates don’t rise to including wildflower meadows and woodlands will find it happy in borders and beds, as well as in cottage and informal gardens. Unfortunately, sweet violets attract slugs and snails and, although they will thrive here in central Scotland, they don’t do well in a slug-infested environment. As with most flowering plants, removing flower heads as these die off prolongs the flowering season … although this is a task for the keener gardener given that this needs to be done so early in the casual gardener’s year. The plants may also be affected by powdery mildew. Sweet violets, sweeter than the roses indeed!