March 20th heralded the first day of spring and what better way to spend it than travelling up to Devil’s Dyke with my little Phalène puppy to check out some of the early flowering plants of the chalk hills.
My mission proved to be successful, finding several well-known early flowering species such as sweet violet (Viola odorata), lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria), wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) and an all-year rounder, the common field speedwell (Veronica persica). The focus of today’s article will be the sweet violet.
I found several clumps of sweet violet along the hedge and road bank-sides leading up to Devil’s Dyke. The species belongs to the family Violaceae or ‘violets’ which are known most familiarly to me as clumps of heart-shaped leaves in their vegetative state from mid-winter. Violets are characterised by having stipules in pairs at the leaf-bases, solitary flowers which are irregular, and 5 petals with the lower lip-petal having a spur which is used in species identification.
The sweet violet is the only violet that is aromatic, which made the identification of this one fairly easy. Another key identification feature is the fact the leaf and flower shoots all arise from the rootstock of the plant, a feature it shares only with the hairy dog violet (Viola hirta), although V. odorata differs from V. hirta in having closely downy hairs and rooting runners. As well as this, the sepals on this species are blunt, another feature it shares with V. hirta.
This species, like other violets are shade-tolerant, often found along woodland edges or hedgebanks, and often on calcareous soil, as I had found this individual. Another interesting feature of this plant is that the flowers are hermaphrodite, meaning that it has both male and female organs (carpels and stamens) within the same flower. This feature makes this plant capable of self-fertilising or ‘cleistogamy’ in botanical terms, a useful feature if its pollinator species suffers a fall in numbers!