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The darling of lovers and poets.

Byline: Elizabeth Shaheen

The endearing Viola odorata is still in bloom. It utterly transcends the garden.

It has for time immemorial exceeded its title as a simple flower and become a legend in its own right.

The ancients cultivated it in their gardens and it was prized by the Classical Greeks for its medicinal attributes, so too in medieval monasteries.

The Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte who while in exile, is alleged to have declared the legendary words "I will return with the violets in spring" and for Josephine his wife the scent of violets was her favourite perfume.

When Napoleon died, violets and a lock of Josephine's hair were found in a locket.

The violet is the darling of lovers, poets and artists, audaciously competing with the rose for romanticism.

It was extensively referred to by Shakespeare who named it "forward", for it blooms early and heralds the advance of summer.

The plant is regularly expressed as modest for concealing its dark exquisiteness away in the long grass and for flowering so ephemerally - ours came from a packet of English meadow seed mix some moons back.

There are numerous tales as to the Violet's name, but it almost certainly derives from Greece where it was perceived to be the flower of Zeus, the king of the gods.

Legend holds that Zeus was in love with a beautiful Maiden named Io and to ensure her safety from Hera, his jealous wife, he changed her into a beautiful calf.

Subsequently, with the purpose of indulging her with luxurious food, he ordered the earth to bring forth a beautiful flower in her honour, which he named Ion, the Greek word for Viola.

It is named the "English violet", "garden violet" and "sweet violet". Although it does not survive as a perennial in our garden, it generously self-sows, germinating in November to bloom in spring.

The sweetly-perfumed violet or white blooms are carried on long stems above charismatic, heart-shaped, toothed leaves.

Throughout the 1930s, Viola odorata was used in the treatment of lung and breast cancer and continues to be valued in alternative cancer therapies following surgery, to prevent secondary tumours developing.

It is also esteemed in the treatment of coughs and chest infections and holds diuretic properties and it is used in the treatment of rheumatism when taken as a tea.

Sweet violets make a soothing poultice for external ailments. The essential oil of violets is used in aromatherapy.

Numerous perfumes include the essential oil of violets. The flowers can be included in potpourris and flower waters.

They look simply beautiful when candied for decorating cakes. The flowers look enchanting when added to salads and deserts for a decorative effect.

When you send violets to someone it delivers the message of love, humility, modesty, resurrection, spring and the immortal soul.

The sweet violet Viola odorata continues to be the most easily recognised, and its hybrid descendants and cultivars are countless.

Such descendants embrace the Palma violets, these were highly prized in Victorian times and their popularity is witnessing a rebirth. This tribe possesses double-petalled flowers and are wonderfully perfumed.

We also take pleasure in Viola tricolor, which is native to England and was known in Elizabethan times in just three colours: yellow, white and purple and entitled the heartease or pansy.

It was not until the 19th century that it gripped the breeders and now there are a phenomenal number of hybrids from which to choose.

Hybrids of Viola tricolor and Viola lutea, with large brazen petals, are virtually circular in design, and varying colour patterns were created by various growers from the 1810s, and acquired the name pansy.

In the 1860s, the Scottish nurseryman James Grieve crossed pansies with Viola cornuta, known as violas, albeit the journalist William Robinson attempted to drum up support for the name 'tufted pansy'. I suppose he wanted to leave his legacy!

There are more than 500 species of Viola and these are usually separated into two groups: the pansies with cheeky, colourful faces that can't but fail too make you smile and fall in love with them, and the captivating violets, which present a more concave design of blooms and are in the main, purple.

Hereas, the pansies - counting heartease and tricolor - are generally annuals, the violets are, in the main, perennials and frequently have spreading, ground-covering tendencies.

The sweet violet Viola odorata, continues to be the most easily recognised and its hybrid descendants and cultivars are countless.

Such descendants embrace the Palma violets, these were highly prized in Victorian times and their popularity is witnessing a rebirth.

This tribe possesses double-petalled flowers and are wonderfully perfumed.

These easy-to-grow plants do well in all areas of our garden, but they require good drainage. I hope that you take pleasure in these breathtaking plants.

Sow the seed directly in situ in November and revel in the sheer joy of their presence in your Bahrain garden.

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Publication:Gulf Daily News (Manama, Bahrain)
Date:Jun 11, 2008
Words:831
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