Shy, sweet, modest, unobtrusive are words used in poetry to describe the nature of violets. However, those are not the words one may use
when trying to rid a garden of violets. Those words may be of the four-letter variety! The Viola odorata is a tough,
tenacious, rugged plant that wants to survive. Several instances over the past month have made me ponder on the violets' toughness.
Some weeks ago I visited the local branch of the California State Department of Agriculture. We needed a phytosanitary certificate to ship
some violets overseas. Our friendly inspector while examining the violets for signs of pests and diseases proceeded to tell us how he'd been
trying this year to eradicate the violets which had naturalized under his stand of almond trees. First he tried the non-selective herbicide
Roundup with little success. He has now resorted to using 2-4-D, a much stronger herbicide used to kill trees and shrubs. He found it a little
ironic we specialize in growing violets and were spending time and effort in actually shipping them to another country. Then a week later while
listening to a garden talk show on the radio a caller asked the two nurserymen hosts: "How do I get rid of violets?" The hosts chuckled and
said that it is a commonly asked question in their nurseries. Their recommendation was to dig them out and treat future young seedlings with
herbicide and that there was probably a ten-year's supply of seed in the soil. And here I was, carefully transplanting young violet cuttings
while listening to this conversation.
The following day I had a load of locally collected fieldstone delivered for a stone wall I was building. The driver of the landscape supply
business asked to walk around the nursery. He was thrilled to see all the violets and proceeded to tell me of his fond memories of mowing his
randmother's 2-acre lawn, which was filled with violets. A fragrant field of purple in February. This is the kind of story I like to hear.
Violets are able to spread and compete so well for several reasons. First, violets make a dense, deep root system. This allows them
to find and compete for any available water in the soil. Second, the violets can spread by vigorous runners, which trail away from the
crown, root at the tip and make another plant. Then, there is their method of setting seed. A small quantity is produced from the open flowers.
These are cross-pollinated from a variety of insects, which visit the flowers. The greatest percentage of seed is set by the cleistogamous
flowers (closed flowers with no petals but have the necessary parts to self-pollinate). So, if the weather is inclement at the time of
flowering and insects are not available for pollination, the cleistogamous flowers are the backup supply of seed. The ripe seed from either
method can be expelled a distance up to nine feet!
So, it is true, violets can be a nuisance. It all depends on the garden, your gardening style, and the variety of violet you choose for your
garden. People assume a violet is a violet. But after cultivating 30 different cultivars of Viola odorata the last 13 years,
I've learned that they are not the same. Some are more restrained and less aggressive than others. So pick your violets carefully: they may be
around for a while.
Oh, by the way, the only plant surviving in our chicken run with no water and the 2nd hottest summer on record in California: a violet!