In this week’s blog …
Roses are red, violets are blue….
For some time, the difference between Violets, Violas and Pansies has puzzled me. Generally, they are all considered to be of the same genus – the Viola. Violets descended from European wild sweet violets, whereas bedding violas were hybridised from pansies and pansies developed from wild violas. Now, is your head spinning too?
Violas are a little like auricula with their rich and long history. In the early 19th Century growers were in pursuit of the perfect show pansy which led to rapid breeding and hybridisation, resulting in the beloved viola in the late 1860s. By mid-century they were all the rage.
Violas were loved by the Victorians who had an insatiable addiction to them. In 1874 six tons of parma violet flowers were being harvested in the south of France per year. 3,000 per year were grown at Windsor to cater for the Royal Family’s needs alone. When you think about their dainty size, that really is quite a huge amount of harvested petals.
Legend says that pansies were white and it wasn’t until they were pierced by Cupid’s arrow that they gained their purple and yellow colours. And with that came their magical power to be used in love potions. In fact, there seems to be a general theme around love when reading up on these plants.
Napoleon had an obsession with them. He donned the code name ‘Caporal Violette’ upon his exile representing “The little flower that returns with spring” and wore a locket of violas taken from Josephine’s grave when he died.
Ancient Greeks saw it as a symbol of fertility and love and made potions with it, as did the Celts.
Pliny recommended that a garland of violets be worn above the head to ward off headaches and dizzy spells and the Romans used them to make a sweet wine.
They were also used as medieval ‘strewing herbs’, scattered on the floor to sweeten the air.
Then there is Heartsease which began to be cultivated and hybridised in the early 19th Century. Well known as a medicinal plant and a promising source of natural antioxidant. It is still used today as a herb for skin ailments and bronchitis. The juice of heartsease was the love potion used in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.
“The juice of it, on sleeping eyelids laid, will make a man or woman, madly dote upon the next live creature it sees”
– William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Popping their heads up sometime around Easter, they can be deliciously scented and have many uses from being distilled in ice cubes for drinks, used as cake decorations and sprinkled over salads, or as an ingredient for perfume.
Violas have a long flowering time until the first frosts, prefer cool, moist places and part-shade in rich humus soil. They look absolutely stunning in border fringes, rockeries, bowls and tubs and are lovely potted up like an auricula in a tom-pot and given as a spring gift for Mother’s Day or to the one you love.