Violets have much to offer, year-round

By Lee Reich The Associated Press
Friday January 04, 2002

Of all the flowers that linger this late in the season, Johnny-jump-ups are among the best. 

Alyssum’s flowers also last, but begin to look ragged by now. Chrysanthemums have the opposite fault, staring out too bright-eyed and stiff, seeming almost lifeless. 

Johnny-jump-ups, originally from Europe, are a type of wild violet whose small flowers may not be flamboyant, but even now pulse with life. 

In good weather, they look perky; rain, wind, and cold leave them only temporarily ragged. The flowers have the same winsome look as pansies, their cultivated cousins. A thick shock of “hair” — two purple petals — surmounts the three golden petals of the each “face,” on which purple veins wrinkle into a smile. You may get Johnny-jump-ups without even planting them, as offspring of pansies. 

Johnny-jump-ups thrive under a range of conditions. Still, they prefer a soil that has plenty of humus to keep it well-aerated and moist. Shade from hot afternoon sun completes this picture of Johnny-jump-up heaven. 

Once you have Johnny-jump-ups, you’ll notice that they quickly spread. Unlike most flowers, Johnny-jump-ups — along with other violets — do not have to rely on wind or insects for pollination. Besides their showy flowers, violets also produce flowers that self-pollinate without any help. You won’t notice these flowers, even if you look closely, because they grow beneath the surface of the soil, the seed pods poking up through the ground only as their seeds ripen.  

To further aid dispersal, violets can shoot their ripe seeds almost 10 feet away. 

Success with Johnny-jump-ups may very well prompt you to expand your repertoire of wild violets. For instance, for a groundcover, there is the low, spreading Labrador Violet, a native with small, blue flowers and dark, purple leaves. For something frilly, there is the Birdfoot Violet, with deeply cut leaves and, usually, purple and lilac petals. The Woolly Blue Violet comes in an albino form that retains a large blue center — the “Confederate Violet,” once popular in the South. And for your nose, how about the old-fashioned Sweet Violet, once used for fragrant nosegays? 

And of course, do leave some room for some “high-bred” pansies.