After spending nearly three decades at the NYBG, and working much of that time in South American rainforests with her husband, Scott A. Mori, Carol Gracie has returned to one of her first botanical interests–local wildflowers. She is the author of Spring Wildflowers of the Northeast: A Natural History and coauthor (with Steve Clemants) of Wildflowers in the Field and Forest: A Field Guide to the Northeastern United States.
The sweet white violet (Viola blanda) is tiny, but often grows in masses.
Although many of our northeastern violets are lovely to look at, there is only one that is intensely fragrant—the tiny, white-flowered Viola blanda, commonly called sweet white violet. The delicate little flowers are well worth kneeling down and placing your nose right next to them to inhale their sweet scent.
While there, take the time to observe the structure of the flower. Like other members of its genus, the flowers have five petals, the lowest of which is modified into an extended spur to hold the flower’s nectar. Rather than aroma, most of our violet species attract pollinators with their pleasing colors of purple, white, or yellow. To reach the nectar in the deep spur requires a long proboscis such as that of butterflies. By patiently observing a patch of violets, you may be lucky enough to witness one of these pollinators visiting the flowers. In the case of the accompanying photograph, a West Virginia White butterfly visited several species of violets, among them this long-spurred violet, Viola rostrata. The same species of butterfly may also be seen depositing its eggs on nearby toothwort plants (Cardamine spp.), which serve as food plants for its larvae.
Sweet-scented violets have played a notable role in history. The favorite flower of Napoleon and his first wife, the Empress Josephine, was a European violet, Viola odora, which was especially prized for its lovely, sweet scent. Each year Napoleon would present Josephine with a bouquet of sweet violets on the anniversary of their wedding day. Violets, in fact, became a symbol of the Napoleonic reign. Despite Napoleon and Josephine’s great love, when Josephine failed to produce an heir after 13 years of marriage, Napoleon divorced her and married the young Marie Louise, who quickly bore him a son. However years later, when Napoleon died, his locket was found to contain a lock of Josephine’s hair and some pressed violets—a token of his lasting love for his first wife.
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