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Coy violets abound in Nature's garden

2019 06 23 violetsBy David Hawke -- Each spring we (well, okay, my wife Julie) tries to "improve" the looks of the landscape around our home, the most obvious endeavor usually being the flower gardens.

Daffodils, tulips, periwinkles, hyacinth, and crocuses have all been lined up rank and file to beautify the grounds (although the periwinkle refuses to stay in neither rank nor file). Despite her good intentions “something” is still lacking, as these species are a bit too domestic for my liking.

          However, a short walk around the lawn (and some grass manicurists would shudder at my use of the word "lawn"), reveals that Nature has been gardening, too, and with some naturally pleasing results. Mixed within and tucked along the borders of the twitch, crab and orchard grasses of our mowed green space is found a delightful variety of wildflowers.

Scattered about and increasing their coverage every year are several species of violets, their yellow, white, or blue blossoms peeking coyly from between the clumps of what I assume would be hay if left unfettered. Each spring our lawn is a patchwork of colour due mainly to these ground-hugging flowers.

          Violets, historically, have been revered and honoured in many myths and writings. Legend has it that Zeus fell in love with the nymph Io, but for some reason his wife, Hera, didn't take kindly to the situation -- so she changed Io into a white heifer. Unable to change her back, Zeus managed to have Io's tears turn into blue violets as they dropped to the ground.

          For over 2,000 years these flowers have been cultivated and utilized by the peoples of Europe as perfumes, candies, cancer treatments, remedies for ailing stomachs, and throbbing heads. In 1475, Thorlief Bjornsson, an Icelander, wrote: "If a man's head is heavy from meat or drink, then it is good to drink violets. If one has on his head a wreath of violets, it drives away vipers with its smell." I think that just might be the best advice many of you will hear today.

          The Roman naturalist, Pliny, also noted that a garland of violets worn about the head would cure dizziness and banish headaches. The Celts discovered that a mixture of goat's milk and violets made an acceptable cosmetic, and the English found that this flower could be used as a mild laxative for children.

          This sweet-scented European flower was also adored by the famous Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Josephine. She wore violet perfume in such extremes that it quickly became her trademark (easier than bathing I guess). When she died in 1814, Napoleon planted these flowers on her grave, eventually picking some which he encased in a locket which he wore until his own death.

          Today violets are still held in special wonderment. While our North American native species lack odour, the imported varieties from Europe have abundant smell, which is almost overpowering when sniffed too long or too close. There is a chemical within violets called ionone, an element that temporarily numbs the sense of smell ("ionone" again referring to that Greek nymph, Io). Upon smelling this blossom, your nose registers the fragrance, short-circuits for a moment, and then once more becomes capable of detecting odours.

          As Shakespeare so aptly put it: "The odour of a violet is forward, not permanent; sweet, not lasting; the perfume and suppliance of a minute."

          Also found in our yard are the multi-coloured blooms of a little violet called a field pansy. The name 'pansy' is from the French word 'pensee', meaning 'thought'; the pattern of these small, richly coloured blooms do indeed have pensive, or thoughtful, faces. If you check out the pansies in the Disney movie "Alice in Wonderland" you will definitely see these faces.

          Field pansies are also called Johnny-Jump-Up, as they grew in profusion within old battlefields of the far south. And yet another name is Heartsease, coming from the traditional language of flowers in which purple means memories, white means loving thoughts, and yellow stands for souvenirs. Hence, heartsease was a flower received to ease the heartbreak of separation.

          Once the history and relevance of a "weed" becomes known, it is hard to whack it down with a lawnmower or spray it with chemicals. Maybe I should just change the name of our flat area from 'yard' to 'wildflower garden', and not spend too much time fussing over it.        

But first I should help Julie unload that mixed flat of geraniums and impatiens.

© 2019 David J. Hawke

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Update: ADOPTED! Beauty lives up to her name!
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