Viola odorata

Fall under the spell of the charming sweet violet this spring


As winter fades and wildflowers stir into life one of the earliest blossoms to be found carpeting our woodlands, hedge banks and open grasslands with splashes of sea-blue blossom is the sweet violet, Violet odorata. It’s a low, carpeting perennial with rounded semi-evergreen leaves no more than 15cm (6in) high and although found throughout most of the UK, is possibly only native up to Westmoreland.

It luxuriates in semi-shade in moist, rich soils, particularly those which are neutral or alkaline, but it is adaptable, particularly in gardens, spreading by creeping stems or stolons and self-sown seed and can find itself an unwanted plant in lawns. Like all wild plants it has attracted the attention of gardeners who have selected interesting variants from the wild, in gardens or deliberately bred them to create different flower shapes and colours in single and double forms in blues, purple, pink and even apricot, as in variety ‘Sulphurea’. Most are sweetly scented, some more so than others, and a posy of them for a tiny vase or even an egg-cup placed on a windowsill always makes a charming feature. It was a popular plant in Victorian times, grown as a cottage-garden cut flower and used in the production of many cosmetic fragrances and perfumes until the early 20th century. Both the leaves and flowers are edible and can be added to salads to add an exciting visual twist.

Easy to grow, they are useful for under planting or associating with other spring bulbs, such as snowdrops and winter aconites, and other early shade-loving perennials such as wood anemones and pulmonaria. Grown in shallow pots or pans they can be lifted more closely to appreciate their demure charms and captivating perfume.