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The perennial wild violet is sometimes unwanted when it spreads rampantly through lawns and garden beds, but its domesticated relatives are cold hardy plants perfect for local gardens. Edible, you can use the flowers and leaves of violets as a garnish or as an ingredient in salads, cold soups, gelatins, jams, or almost any desert. For entertainment you can serve up an accompanying story about violets.

Johnny Jump Up

Johnny Jump Up

This comes to mind as I dig the unwanted weeds out of the cracks between my brick walkway; all except the Johnny Jump-Ups. They’ve been given permission to grow wherever and however they want.

long spurred violet - native wildflower

Long Spurred Violet

Annual pansies and perennial violets come from the same genus, Viola. They have been grown for food and medicine for centuries and in that time, the plants have accumulated a volume of myth and folklore. Pansies bloom longer in a northern garden than they do in areas with hot long summers, occasionally lasting long into the summer. Gardeners have hybridized violas extensively to produce the wonderful array of flowers now available.

These low growing plants come in many colors and color combinations. In northern areas most bloom in April and May, but some like Viola tricolor, or Johnny-jump-up, bloom all summer long. The small flowered types make great ground covers. The large flowered plants are great in containers or for a splash of color in the garden. Most like moist growing sites, but will thrive in ordinary garden soil.

Downy Yellow Violet

The perennial violet is often called the sweet violet, although there are many species of perennial violets. Our native species are the marsh blue violet, the Labrador violet and the bird’s-foot violet, all found in Eastern North America. Violets readily hybridize making identification in the wild difficult. Most perennial violets sold in garden markets are hybrids. Some look more like pansies than the traditional ‘sweet violet.’

Sweet violets are Viola odorata, a European species with a history that goes back to the Greeks and Romans. Zeus turned his mistress Io into a cow to hide her from his wife, Hera, and gave Io violets to eat when she found grass unpalatable. They were also the favorite flower of Napoleon who became known as ‘Corporal Violet.’ His empress, Josephine, wore violets at their wedding to honor him. After his defeat and exile in 1814, Napoleon claimed he would return with the violets in the spring. When he returned to France in March of 1915, the violets were indeed in bloom. This may be why violets are the birth flower for March. Legend says before Napoleon’s final exile he visited his dear, but divorced, Josephine’s grave. He picked a few of the violets growing there and placed them in a locket he wore until his death.

There are superstitions tied to sweet violets, too. To give a gift of violets is to offer the recipient good luck, and wearing a garland of violets prevents dizziness. However, if violets bloom in the fall, epidemics will come within the year. I hope this lore doesn’t apply to the violas and pansies sold blooming in most nurseries during September.

Pick the blossoms of Johnny Jump Ups and add them to your dinner salad tonight.

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