This is where is starts to get difficult – so many plants vying for attention and spring colours all shouting “Me, me, me”. I could choose any of a dozen and wax lyrical, but instead I’m going to recommend the humble violet, Viola odorata. She doesn’t shrink, at least not in this Sussex garden, where she actively spreads rather lavishly, and earns her keep not only with long lasting deep purple blooms, some of which are scented, but also with low carpets of bright green leaves which act as foils for other, taller plants (and supress weeds very effectively). If they are happy, violets will colonise but if not, they will retreat, disappear and refuse to play. Some will also self seed so trim off spent flowerheads if you don’t want the seedlings popping up unannounced.
I have a large carpet of a white violet with a purple heart. I have no idea of its name since its original scrap of root was scraped out of a gravel path outside a hotel in rural Luxembourg and brought back in damp tissue. This was 15 years ago and it rewards me with beautiful blooms in spring, despite putting up with being rather baked in summer. It is about to be dug up and divided, having more than filled its allotted space, and pieces will be potted on and shared.
At an RHS Spring Flower Show at Westminster some years ago, a nursery had the most stunning display of scented violets and I dug into the domestic exchequer and bore one home in triumph, found it a home in a choice border, tucked it up and waited, and waited, and … nothing. Which was so frustrating when not 12 inches away a clump of the ordinary sort was flowering away. So I investigated and realised that I had committed the cardinal sin of not finding the right place for the plant, and that what I had bought was one of the Parma violets which are not particularly hardy and should be treated as tender and kept sheltered in a cold frame over the winter. I still feel guilty about this.
Colours range from the deep purple of the wild violet, through to paler purples and blues to pinks and finally pure white. Some double varieties are also available. They work beautifully in combination with primroses, wood anemones, hellebores and small spring bulbs. I have a group of pink snakeshead fritillaries growing through my white ones.
In terms of cultivation, then, violets enjoy cool, damp humus rich soils. Their natural habitat is in shady hedgerows or banks sharing similar conditions to the wild strawberry and primrose so try to imitate these conditions when planting in the garden. Dappled shade under deciduous trees and shrubs is the ideal position as winter sun will encourage flowering. Incorporate a handful of bonemeal when planting to get them off to a good start. Problems can be caused by slugs, red spider mite, violet midge and aphids and these will need to be addressed however you prefer to deal with such pests (some people spray and others pick and pinch). If the plants are well fed and sturdy, they will recover from such predations. They will bulk out, although this takes patience, and if your budget is unlimited, planting a few of the same variety in a group will make more of an impact in the garden. The only sad thing is that they are not repeat flowerers, unlike other members of the Viola family, but perhaps this fleeting appearance simply serves to make them even more precious and appreciated.
Groves Nurseries in Dorset hold the National Collection – their website is the equivalent of a sweet-shop. www.grovesnurseries.co.uk