"Violets dim, But sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes Or Cytherea's breath."
- "The Winter's Tale," Shakespeare.
The Violets compose a floral family whose members vary but slightly from the type. The stems may be long or short, the colors may vary along the chord of violet-blue or orange-yellow, or the flowers may be white. The spurs may be long or short, but, after all, a Violet is a Violet and everybody knows the flower.
The Violet family of plants includes many species; the finding lists of our northern range record no less than forty-three. Of our native species, some live in woods, others in meadows, still others in moist, marshy ground. They divide naturally into two clearly defined groups: those having stems and those without stems. In the stemless group the flowers are borne on a peduncle that apparently comes directly from the root as the leaves do. In the others the flower-stalk or peduncle is borne on the plant-stem.
The corolla is irregular. There are five petals: one pair above, another pair are side petals; the lower petal is broad and gives the visiting bees and butterflies a place to rest when they are seeking nectar.
This lower petal is prolonged backward into a spur, which holds the nectar. All the Violets are nectar-bearers; all have lines more or less distinct that point to the hidden treasure. Most of them protect this nectar against crawling insects, especially ants, by tufts of hairs at the throat of the flower directly on the road to the honey.
The Violet has a calyx of five sepals, whose shape and length are one means of determining species.
There are five stamens closely surrounding the ovary in the centre of the flower, often slightly grown together, the two lower bearing spurs which project into the spur of the corolla and act as honey-glands.
The pistil is a one-celled ovary with a club-shaped style and the simple stigma turned to one side.
The seed-pod divides lengthwise into three parts with a double row of seeds in each. As the pod walls dry they contract and the seeds are pinched out one by one, sometimes sent some feet away. The Violet does what it can to give its young ones a chance.
Species of Violets are distinguished first as stemmed or stemless, bearded or beardless; then by the character of the spur, and finally by color of flower and shape of leaf.
Besides the normal blossoms which call the bee and depend upon cross-fertilization, most of the Violets have the ability to help themselves in a very unusual way, quite independent of the visits of insects. They are able to produce and do produce small hidden blossoms capable of self-fertilization, which technically are known as cleistogamous, that is, fertilized in the bud. These blossoms appear very near the ground, look like blasted buds, and are without a corolla. They consist of a calyx, very active and vital stamens, and a pistil. They are exceedingly fertile and produce seeds during the summer, long after the normal flowers have passed.
The Violet is a classical plant and is mentioned by Homer and Virgil. It was dear to the Athenians, who deemed themselves most complimented when called violet-crowned. Ion was its Greek name, and Shakespeare, referring to Ophelia, alludes to the old tradition which said that this flower was raised from the body of Io by the agency of Diana:
"Lay her i' the earth - And from her fair and unpolluted flesh May violets spring."
Homer writes of Violets upon the rushy banks of Medes: "Everywhere appeared meadows of softest verdure, purpled o'er with Violets. It was a scene to fill a god from heaven with wonder and delight."
Professor Meehan assures us that there is some ground for supposing that the old Latin name for this flower, Viola, which Linnaeus adopted, is from the same root as via, a path or road, and refers to the fact that this flower was so often the traveller's companion beside the path as he made his way through field or forest.