Question about violets, not roses

melissa_thefarm(NItaly)April 4, 2013

I'm currently rather interested in, and quite puzzled by, sweet violets (forms and cultivars of Viola odorata) and Parma violets. I have several varieties of V. odorata as well as the species that abounds locally and in our garden. I'd like to know more about the Parma violets in particular. I've had a purported 'Marie Louise', one of the Parmas, in the garden for several years, growing it without winter protection and the plant doing fine. So either the Parma violets are less tender than generally described, or this particular variety is unusually hardy, or I have the wrong variety--I favor the last hypothesis. Anyway, if anyone is knowledgeable about sweet and Parma violets, knows something about their characteristics, genetic origins, historical development and contemporary breeding of varieties, current state of the trade, and so on, I'd love to chat with you! Also, is there a good book about violets available? I've posted a message similar to this on the Viola forum, but it doesn't get a lot of activity so I thought I'd try here as well.

This message arises out of my current fascination with violets. I have a bunch of them in a vase beside the computer as I write: large, single, very fragrant, long-stemmed violets of a dark, near-red-violet shade. I have a notion this is a cultivated variety that I bought years ago and that has now taken over a good chunk of its part of the garden. I have no idea by now of its name, but wish I did. Now that we are finally easing into spring the violets are among the most noteworthy plants in the garden, as the bulbs have hardly gotten started and I've been staring at the hellebores between snowfalls for weeks. I've also been working among them the last day or two, as violets' bloom period is the only time of the year when I can tell my cultivated varieties from the (also beautiful) more vigorous wildlings that invade their space. So I've been digging up encroaching wild violets as well as doing some late transplanting of my cultivated beauties, and dreaming--I'm obsessed!--about further varieties to buy in October.

Thanks for any help. Thanks for listening to an obsessed gardener!


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dublinbay z6 (KS)

If by "sweet" violet you mean those small lavender "wild violets" (as we call them here) that want to spread all over your shady lawn, then I would hazard a guess that they are very difficult to kill off. I seem to remember them growing in Zones 4 and 5--winter doesn't hurt them! And here in Zone 6, they are hard to kill off because they start blooming before you are aware they are there and are so cute that you hate to dig them up. By the time they quit blooming, you are no longer in the mood the go around and dig them up by the rootball one at a time all over the yard.

What else can I say--except the first flower I ever transplanted was a lavender wild violet--"stolen" from the neighbor's yard and planted near my swing. It thrived there for years--to my immense enjoyment. This was in Zone 5 or maybe Zone 4 (South Dakota).

I didn't know the rest of the world thought of it as "wild" and an irritating weed. I really thought it was a flower planted by my neighbor and I really thought I had stolen it--but I didn't care. That lavender flower was so cute! (I was about 6 or 7 years old, so please forgive my delinquency.)

Kate : )

    Bookmark   April 4, 2013 at 10:56AM
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mad_gallica(zone 5 - eastern New York)

Violet history intersects rather strongly with local history here. About a year ago, a short documentary came out on the Rhinebeck violet industry called Sweet Violets

The American Violet Society has a brief article on Violets in Dutchess County .
One of the local growers has a history page at Battenfeld History .

    Bookmark   April 4, 2013 at 12:19PM
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Each of those is links is fascinating, Mad Gallica. Thanks for posting them. It was sobering to be reminded again of how ephemeral public taste has always been, and of how economies can live or die based solely on things like subtle changes in modes of dress -- or vague associations with social prejudice.

Melissa, I'm glad you've developed a fascination with violets. It was in Italy that I learned that I had no idea of what a violet could be. I thought those nondescript little violas that pop up every spring here in the South were kind of what ALL violets were. During that Italian visit, I learned differently as I experienced them growing in gardens as we drove from place to place.

My most memorable recollection of violets in Italy, though, came one mid-morning during a visit to the Chiesa d'Ognissante in Florence. As we stood in that magnificent (yet strangely intimate) space, mesmerized, two lovely older women passed very near us. One was holding an exquisite nosegay-type bouquet of violets. We could smell the flowers' fragrance as the women walked by. Perhaps half an hour later, we again saw those violets: the women had placed them at the tomb of Caroline Bonaparte (Napoleon's sister). Not sure why I found the incident to be so poignant, but I did.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2013 at 4:06PM
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Hi Mellissa,

I bought several types of sweet violets and Parma violets when I was putting in a plot of O. G .R,s in a local public Old Rose garden and I decided to plant only those companion plants, violets and geraniums, from the same era; 1800's through early 1920's, as the roses in the same plot.
To extend the blooming season I planted both Parma violets and v. odorata.
V. odorata bloom in our Mediterranean climate during November and again in spring.
Parma violets bloom through January and early Feb, and again in spring. So by planting both, we get 3 months of violets and a light flush in summer from those plants of both types that are in partial shade.
I have 2 named varieties of Parma violets and the same number of sweet violet in my own garden. I bought all of these from Canyon Ranch nursery in California ten years ago, they used to sell 4 types of parma violets and several sweet violets too. If I can find that old catalog I can tell you their names.
According to Wikipedia parma violets are from a more "exotic branch of the violet family", and were bred in the 1800's from two different Viola alba strains.

I love violets foliage as much as their flowers. even when not in bloom the plants are very pretty, especially as they are nearly evergreen in our med. climate.

Thank you for your question, a rose garden without companions is like a queen without a court.


    Bookmark   April 4, 2013 at 6:19PM
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Kippy(SoCal zone 10. Sunset Zone 24)

I found a little sweet violet a few years back, it returned a few years but I think finally died out. I love them and put it in the front yard where we have no grass and some green cover is always welcome

    Bookmark   April 4, 2013 at 6:27PM
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Logee's Greenhouses, an old establishment, has remained in the same family. Around the turn of the twentieth century when sweet violets were the rage they carried many varieties and supplied the New York market. If I were to research the subject, I would begin with them or possibly with Tovah Martin who has written several books and is (somehow) connected to this family.


    Bookmark   April 4, 2013 at 10:48PM
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Kate, there are many violet species native to the U.S. If you're curious, the American Violet Society's page has a lot of information on the subject. Sweet violets, Viola odorata, are native to Europe--they grow wild here locally in abundance--though it wouldn't surprise me to find them naturalized in parts of the U.S. These are the violets of violet fragrance, and hence the name. I don't know if any of the American native violets are scented. We also have several species of violets and violas that grow locally; Viola odorata is only one of many. Yes, many violets can be weeds, when they grow where you don't want them, but what beauties they are. The little girl you were was smart to recognize that.
Thanks, Mad_Gallica, I've been reading your links, and they're interesting. Perhaps with time and study I'll make some sense of violets as horticultural plants and in the wild.
Windeaux, I'd be interested to know what varieties of violets you saw in Italy. Locally I see the wild ones growing in people's yards and in the wild, but I'm the only person I know who grows cultivated sweet violets. I know the cultivated sweet and Parma violets enjoy a certain popularity, as Priola nursery carries them and has been enlarging its collection in late years, but where I live is not exactly the horticultural avant-garde of Italy. This is their native soil, though, and I'm lucky that that's the case.
When I was growing up in north Florida we had a very beautiful, though scentless violet, with pale green, classically violet-shaped leaves and a large shapely flower, white palely suffused with purple. At one time it grew thickly in our back yard, and I thought then that it was as lovely a flower as I ever hope to see. I still think so. If you love violets, I bet you could find some native beauties adapted to your conditions.
Lux, I totally agree with you that roses need companions, in fact, I wouldn't grow roses by themselves. I have a full, if weedy garden.
I'm wondering a lot about how much cold Parma violets can take. You grow yours outdoors without winter protection? How cold does it get where you live, and for how long? This is a question that has been preoccupying me for some time now. Temperatures here have never fallen to 10F, I believe; under 20F is very cold for us. Last year we had three weeks of temperatures in the teens, but there was a foot of snow on the ground and my more tender plants all survived. The only violet I have that ought to be tender is my purported 'Marie Louise', a Parma violet, and it has never suffered from the cold. But I don't know what's considered cold for them, and hence my inquiry. 'Marie Louise' blooms here roughly at the same time as my hardy violets. They usually start around the end of February and go through April, though I get a bit of bloom during warm spells in the winter.
Kippie, get yourself some more violets: they're worth it! I used to have a clump of sweet violets in the garden when I lived in Olympia, and they smelled wonderful. Here of course they're all over the place.
Thanks for the information, Cath, I'll keep it in mind.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2013 at 2:09AM
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A Parma violet survived here a few winters in a protected spot but all others died their first winter. I think some are hardy to zone 7, maybe all and I think they are all hardy to zone 8 as far as cold goes. I do not know if they die in heat or if they do what the limit is. Sorry this sounds fuzzy.


    Bookmark   April 5, 2013 at 3:22AM
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Helen Van Pelt Wilson in her book The Fragrant Year says this about Parma violets. "The intensely fragrant Parma violets, with glossy pointed leaves, are so distinct as to appear another species, though they are a form of Viola odorata var.pallida plena, the Neapolitan violet.The long-stemmed long-lasting double flowers with large rounded ruffled petals come mostly in lavenders. One is pure white, the magnificent 'Swanley', which as Count De Brazza' was a great favorite in the Edwardian era. 'Neapolitan' - lavender paling to a white center, 'Duchesse de Parme' (or simply 'de Parme') -another silky lavender, and 'Marie Louise' - rich lavender-blue, are the three most fragrant violets in existence. The tender Parmas may bloom half the year, but take long to recover from even a little frost. Yet they thrive in cold air that is seldom over 50 degrees F. If you have a greenhouse kept just above freezing, or a well insulated - and well tended - coldframe, you can have six months of exquisitely scented Parma violets - a goal worth some effort."

Helen van Pelt Wilson is less sanguine about cold than I. The Logees grew their Parmas in greenhouses and I have bought both 'Swanley' and 'Marie Louise' from them in the past, neither of which lived through the winter.


    Bookmark   April 5, 2013 at 4:01AM
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Melissa, I'm surprised and disappointed to learn from you that violets are not common in Italy. I made three extended visits to Italy between the mid 80's and the very early 90's when my bother-in-law was posted there. The trip I mentioned above was in (I think) '88. We lodged in quite a number of pensiones, and it was in the gardens of some of those that I first encountered "real" violets. I've no idea what variety any of them were. I recall, though, that they were all fragrant, and that their coloration varied.

I'm just now reminded that on a return trip in 2010, it was disheartening to find that the term "pension" seems to have fallen from favor -- subsumed univerally, it appears, under the tiresome, very UNevocative "B&B". Sigh . . . I'm wondering if that observation (admittedly based on a limited sampling) is accurate.

If it is, I'm also wondering if the same is true of the Portuguese pousadas . I'll bet I'm not the only (fairly) recently minted reactionary who hopes not.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2013 at 10:01PM
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Thanks for the information: it sounds like you're a sweet violet enthusiast too.
I read some of the posts on the violet forum and someone mentioned they kept their Parma violets in an unheated room of their house by a window during the winter. If the Parmas really can't stand frost, I might try them in our bedroom, which we don't heat. Could that work for you?
I have the disadvantage of never having seen a Parma violet in the flesh, so to speak, so I don't know what their foliage and other non-flower parts look like. Evidently I don't get around enough. I suspect they would like our summers fine, as, though hot, it's not humid.
It's likely I misled you. Violets are common in Italy, and are probably still growing in all the places you saw them when you came here, but I'll bet you saw wild violets. Cultivated violets are very similar to their wild forbears, often just selected forms with particularly attractive flower color and shape, long stems, and good fragrance. There are a number of wild species that grow where I live, and considerable genetic variability within species. Wild violets in my garden are fragrant and not fragrant, and come in purple and white and almost blue.
My main concern in my post is with cultivated violets, and these I don't see growing in people's gardens, nor offered for sale in local nurseries. I got mine from a specialist nursery.
All the time I've lived here Italy has been in a very stupid phase of employing English words, usually in cases where there's a perfectly good Italian one already available. Probably the word "pensione" fell victim to this abominable fad. And foreign language instruction here is often terrible: it's not as though Italy were full of competent English speakers, and yet Italian is stuffed with borrowings from that language. To me it all suggests silly pretension, and a lack of respect on the part of many Italians toward their own language.

This post was edited by melissa_thefarm on Sat, Apr 6, 13 at 15:08

    Bookmark   April 5, 2013 at 11:58PM
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I do remember buying bunches of violets here in NYC in spring in the 1960s. Who would have believed that they would become so soon a thing of the past?

I read somewhere in a book by Colette that violets (and probably lavender) were considered the only perfume proper for a respectable lady to wear. That is because their scent is strong but fleeting ("does she or doesn't she?): the nose goes "blind" after smelling the violet perfume and can no longer detect it after the first few whiffs. According to the linked article below: "Ionine, one of the chemicals that makes up the sweet violet’s scent, has the power to deaden the smell receptors once its been sniffed." Perhaps violets have also been a victim of our more sexually permissive age.

It used to be fairly easy to find "Rosina", a simple, sweet scented Viola odorata (not the less hardy double Parma kind). Rosina is described as pink but is really a pale-ish inconspicuous reddish purple. I had it for a while: it lived for several years and spread nicely, before being crowded out. It's not very showy or distinctive in the garden, but then neither are many traditionally beloved plants of the herbal garden.

Two things are the enemy of violets, both of which abound in my back yard: slugs and the rampant, scentless American violet. It is my impression that violets prefer neutral to alkaline soil and are heavy feeders, especially of potash. They have a questing nature and seek new soil.

I am mystified that "The Fragrant Year" was allowed to got out of print. You'd think some publisher would re-do it or some company like "Old House Gardens" would, given the current nostalgia for old-time plants.

Here is a link that might be useful: A British link about sweet violets

    Bookmark   April 6, 2013 at 10:06AM
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We have the little purple (wild?) violets, here in eastern Washington. They're very hardy, but they don't take least not in my yard. They're in clumps, in shady areas of the yard especially by the shed and large lilac bushes. I want to transplant some to the shade garden, where I need a low ground cover under the shrubs, so I'm hoping they do spread.

Not only do they have a nice fragrance, but you can use them in recipes, too. We don't spray the gardens at all, so I will be trying recipes with the roses, violets, lavender, etc. this year :)

    Bookmark   April 6, 2013 at 4:07PM
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Campanula UK Z8

Hi Melissa, have been reluctant to jump in because not only do I not grow parma violets but the whole nomenclature of violets is somewhat confused in my head. I currently grow V.cornuta, V.riviana, V.sororia and various v.odorata (but not the tender and double parma violets)....and then there are numerous cultivars such as Molly Sanderson (the blackest plant I have ever seen). I also grow many annual violets, violas, violettas and pansies - most of which have become impossibly cross-pollinated over the years.
For really good named cultivars which have been vegetatively propagated, you could see if Groves nursery will ship to Europe - they have a really great selection, including parma violets.
In my head, I tend to separate them into dog violets (unscented), sweet violets (scented) and annuals (tricolor, for example)
To be honest, they get tucked into corners and often forgotten but I suspect I will be entertaining a few more violets once I am installed in the woods.
I have never found them to be the dreadful pest which some people suffer.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2013 at 4:41PM
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The American wild violets really are a pest. They spread by underground seeds (!!), which quest around at the end of long, rhizome-like roots. They look all right in the spring, but soon grow very large and leafy. The white with the pale purple blotch are called Confederate violets. My mother had these in Pennsylvania. There is also a yellow flowered one.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2013 at 12:31AM
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It finally occurred to me to check "The Sunset Western Garden Book" on Parma violet hardiness: it lists them as good in Sunset zones 4-9, 14-24. I think we fall in there somewhere. Also it says they're V. alba.
Monarda, I associate violets with Colette, too; perhaps it was in part just the era and the circles she moved in, but she was also sensitive to plants, scents, and food.
This is God's own violet country: we have several native species, and violets grow all over the place. I think our clay soils, mild wet winters, and dry summers all suit them perfectly. I think you may be right that they like a lot of nourishment. I was looking at some of mine this year and thinking I might have to lift them and amend their beds...though this is also due to my not having prepared the soil all that well to begin with. Our clay, well amended with compost, would be fine. I seem to remember reading that violets were grown under glass in hotbeds, that is, with an underlying layer of manure that gave off heat to warm the cold frame as it decomposed, and then fed the plants. My violets don't seem to get any pests or diseases worth noting. I do have to weed the wild violets away from them, though.
I'm lucky that there are a couple of nurseries I know of that sell fragrant cultivated violets, though I don't know if 'Rosina' is one of them. I currently have six or seven kinds of cultivated sweet and Parma violets. By the way--I didn't know this until my current researches--there are double hardy forms of V. odorata as well as the mostly double Parmas: my double white 'Reine de Blanche' is a V. odorata cultivar.
Lavender Lass, I wonder what your fragrant violets are? The only scented violets I've heard of are the Europeans V. odorata and V. alba. Are there scented American native violets as well, or do you have some naturalized V. odorata in your yard? Is it a typical violet (like the perfume) scent?
I don't know whether the American Violet Society is still in existence, but their Internet site is, and it offers considerable information on American native violets, with a key for identification.
Suzy, I'm confused too; I never had any formal training in botany (not much informal either) and so many violets are so similar to each other! I discovered the Groves site a while back and it has been piling fuel on the flames of my violet passion. And yes, they do ship to Italy. In this country the Priola nursery has a respectable and growing collection, and I want to buy from them this year. Groves is definitely a possibility for the future.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2013 at 1:51AM
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Curious about all the traffic here, I finally open this thread this morning.

When I read that reference to Napoleon's sister, I had a niggling feeling that I had read something long ago about Napoleon and violets. A quick web search turned up all sorts of stuff. The Little Corporal had a really big thing for violets. Who knew?

One of the articles that show up had very little to say about any of the Bonapartes, but quite a lot to say about violets in Italy, so I'm providing a link. The article was the opening speech at a symposium on heritage roses and violets held a while back at what's decribed as the "sumptuous Villa Manin of Passariano" near Venice. I don't recall receiving a mailing on that event. Darn.

Here is a link that might be useful: The Violet in Italy

    Bookmark   April 7, 2013 at 7:33AM
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Just silly, really, but remember those captivating images of Audrey Hepburn in the film "My Fair Lady" as a bedraggled flower girl with her small bouquets of violets?

My other strong image of violets are the birds foot violets, viola pedata, that I found in whites, yellows and shades of purple growing wild on the forest floor in east Tennessee where I went to college. Coming from the plains of Oklahoma where I'd never seen a violet except in the hands of Audrey Hepburn, this was a revelation and joy to me.

Here are the weedy ones, I'm sure, that populate my garden in the early spring. You've made me want to find some of the parma or odorata, so will probably order some from Select Seeds. But weedy or not, I like them ...

    Bookmark   April 7, 2013 at 4:03PM
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What a beautiful photo!

I had forgotten about Bird's foot violet, a treasure!

I am going to have fun reading all the linked articles on this thread.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2013 at 8:48PM
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I have tried Parma violets in the walkout basement that runs about 60F during winter and I have tried them in the garage where it seldom gets below zero. Both were failures and sometimes they died in the summer. On reflection, the one that lived a few winters was a simple sweet violet. Unless I move, Parmas will not be for me even though the few fleeting sniffs I have had make me wish they were.

You have said (I think) that you have an unheated greenhouse. As long as it doesn't freeze, I would think that would be an ideal place to carry them over the winter.


    Bookmark   April 8, 2013 at 11:31PM
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I'm thinking at this point that Parma violets probably ARE hardy here, based on my recent reading--including the links people posted on this thread. But for indoors, I had been thinking about our bedroom. It's not heated, has east- and south facing windows, and we sleep with them open except in the very coldest weather. I think it would be promising. The ad hoc greenhouse would be right as far as temperatures are concerned, but I pay very little attention to the plants in it in the winter, while I think I could better follow plants in the bedroom. Did your indoors wintered Parma violets lack sun? air?
I suspect that the European violets prefer dry and somewhat fresh summers. Quite possibly the heavy humidity of the eastern U.S. in the summer is hard on them.
They do smell awfully good.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2013 at 12:38AM
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JessicaBe(5-6 Central Ohio)

I was going to ask about birds foot and prairie violets. Prairie Moons Nursery says that prairie violet isn't aggressive as some. Do any of you have experience with them?

    Bookmark   April 11, 2013 at 12:18PM
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JessicaBe(5-6 Central Ohio)

I found an article about parma violets on the Christian Science Monitor

Here is a link that might be useful: The very fragrant Parma violet

    Bookmark   April 11, 2013 at 12:44PM
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My indoors violets had bright light below a window but not direct sunlight. The room has a door on the same wall which we used at least twice a day and so the violets had reasonably fresh air but not a constant exchange of air.


    Bookmark   April 11, 2013 at 10:48PM
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