Small but perfectly formed


After the bleak winter months when all ground vegetation is dormant and often dead, the first spring flowers are like beacons in a storm.

Most, such as celandine (picture, top of page), coltsfoot, dandelion, primrose and cowslip, are yellow to attract early insects, but there are a few exceptions. Some are white such as wood anemone and wood sorrel but there is one lovely exception which I always enjoy seeing – the dog violet.

Often in the company of primroses, enjoying similar habitats, this tiny blue member of the pansy clan is a joy to behold. Its flowers are scentless and it is thought to have acquired the name dog violet as the Victorians thought it inferior to the strongly scented sweet violet, which is much less common.

The latter is often white with a purple spur behind the flower and the smell is the same as the parma violet sweets we used to get years ago. It is widely regarded as the most fragrantly perfumed of all native wild flowers and in medieval times it was grown in gardens for herbal medicine and to be added to meat and poultry dishes.

The scent seems to fade rapidly and this is because it contains chemicals that temporarily numb the sense of smell of the person sniffing the flower.

There are 13 species of native violets and pansies in Britain and all belong to the Violaceae family. You are only likely to encounter a handful of them regularly in the Borders, one of which is another little stunner, the mountain pansy.

It is very variable in colour ranging from yellow to purple and combinations of both. It is found on many of our hills in high summer and Selkirk Hill is a particularly good place to see them in profusion.

The flowers of pansies and violets are similar in structure and only allow pollination by insects such as bees, moths and butterflies, that have tube-like proboscis long enough to reach into the flower spur, where the nectar is secreted.

The lower petals and to a lesser extent, the side petals are streaked with dark lines radiating from the nectar source. These “honey guides” strongly reflect ultraviolet light, which is easily seen by bees – the most common pollinators.

Members of the violet family do not solely rely on insects for fertilisation, but have another trick up their sleeves. Later in the season, as they become hidden by longer vegetation and insects can’t find them, they grow a second cluster of flower buds which never open. The pollen inside fertilises the flower which can then produce good seed.

Sweet violets have a third way in reproducing, by sending out long stolens which root when they touch the ground, making new plants.

The term pansy is often used as a derogatory term, but as you can see it can be a tenacious little plant, which can be quite a tough little customer.