A “Sweet not lasting” Flower

text & photos : Norma A. Hubbard (June 2018)

As a teacher, I often view nature through the lens of literature, so it is not surprising that my love of Shakespeare influences how I see violets (Viola odorata). Each spring when these lovely little flowers start to appear in my garden, I can’t help but think of a line from Hamlet when the ‘mad’ Ophelia is handing out flowers, she says, “I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died” (IV, v). While this may be a sad thought, there are also many interesting things about violets.

Violets are also associated with love and healing, not just death. Violets are native perennials and have over 200 common names, such as Cuddle Me, Bird’s Eye, Wild Pansy, Love-in idleness, Love Idol, Call-me-to-you, and numerous other names involving love and kissing. The actual name of violet is believed to originate from ‘vias’ meaning wayside, which is not surprising as violets can be found growing along numerous ‘waysides’. I have violets growing between the rocks, along the edges of the forest and all over my lawn. I know some people consider them weeds as they can take over a lawn. When I lived in the city, each spring violets covered my lawn. I loved it, but my ‘chem-lawn-loving’ neighbour hated it; now my violets grow wherever they want without frowns from my neighbours.

There is plenty of folklore and myths involving violets. During the Middle Ages, monks believed that God sent the violets, and due to its heart-shaped leaves, used violets to treat heart problems; the monks called the plant “Heartsease”; or it may have gotten that name because violets were also made into an aphrodisiac. According to Greek mythology, Athens’ founder, Ion, was given violets from water nymphs for good luck, and violets became Athens’ emblem. No wedding in Athens took place without violets for good luck! Another myth states when Pluto kidnapped Persephone, the daughter of Demeter (Mother Earth), she was picking violets, hence the reason violets grow each spring when Persephone was allowed to return to earth to visit her mother. One scary myth states that Venus, mother of Cupid, in a fit of jealousy beat several beautiful maidens, turning the maidens blue and into violets. In Christianity, white violets are often associated with the Virgin Mary and that the violets turned purple when Christ died. In ancient times, violets were often placed upon graves, especially those of children.

The violets growing around my property – which I did not plant – are mostly purple/blue and a few are white. Occasionally there are some yellow ones. Violets are self-seeding, so besides popping up in and around my garden, violets tend to grow in the woods, or in cooler areas with moist soil. The flowers bloom in spring and will wilt once the summer heat arrives, but the heart-shaped leaves will stay. Violets are low growing plants and flowers grow on a single stalk, often in clusters. I haven’t eaten violets, but the leaves and flowers are edible. The leaves contain high levels of vitamins A and C, and the flowers can be used to decorate, or made into jellies. I recently saw an ad for violet infused gin. A word of caution, never ingest any plant that may contain pesticides. I do not use any poison around my garden because I want the bees and butterflies, so unless you know how the violets were grown, do not eat them.

Allow me to finish with one more Shakespeare reference from Hamlet, and remember that violets “are sweet, not long lasting/ The perfume and suppliance of a minute/ No more” (I,iii) – so be sure to enjoy them each spring, as all too soon they will be gone.

Sources: www.ediblewildfood.com/wild-violet.aspx; comenius-legends.blogspot.ca/2010/07/legend-of-violet.htm