Researched and written by Dominic Hodnett for the Jersey Biodiversity Centre, April 2017.
Perhaps one of the easiest and most common wildflowers to spot in Jersey during springtime is the violet, with its charismatic, bluish-purple flowers and heart-shaped leaves. We are fortunate to have several species of violet in the island, all of which flower in springtime and early summer, making this time of year a useful time to compare different varieties. Our most unusual species is arguably the Dwarf Pansy (Viola kitaibeliana) found at Les Mielles, a tiny, quite rare species of the plant family which grows exclusively on coastal turf.
Of the several species of violet locally present, some are more prevalent than others. The Common Dog Violet (Viola riviana) is locally our most abundant species and has an easily recognisable flower with a notched lower petal – known botanically as a ‘notched spur’. In 1903, Lester-Garland described the Common Dog Violet as endemic to ‘banks, commons and hillsides’ which remains pertinent today.
The Sweet Violet (Viola odorata) is less common than the former species but is still prevalent in the centre of the island, and is easy to distinguish from the former variety as it lacks a notch in its lower petal. The Sweet Violet is scented and was allegedly one of the favourite flowers of Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine de Beauharnais, leading to Napoleon’s nickname of ‘le Caporal la Violette’ amongst his loyalists in France. The white form of the variety has been recorded locally.
Localised Species: Besides the Common Dog Violet and the Sweet Violet, we are fortunate in Jersey to have another two unusual species of the violet family– the Dwarf Pansy (Viola kitaibeliana) and the Heath Dog Violet (Viola canina). Both of these flowers are found at specific sites at Les Blanches Banques in St Ouen’s Bay, a site of Special Scientific Interest.
The Dwarf Pansy is essentially a tiny ‘miniature’ viola, which can be found for a matter of weeks in April and May in the lower dunes at Les Blanches Banques, identified by dwarf flowers of approximately five millimetres long. The species is found in relatively few sites in the UK and only grows on short maritime sandy turf such as that at Les Mielles, although is also found at several similar sites of the Cotentin peninsular in Normandy, perhaps explaining its local presence. Lester-Garland noted that the plant was ‘locally abundant’ in St Aubin’s Bay, St Brelade’s Bay, Les Quennevais and St Ouen’s Bay in the early twentieth century, however it is today only found in the latter of those sites, due to habitat loss.
The Heath Dog Violet is another local rarity found solely in one locality at Les Mielles, and has very pale blue petals and narrow-oval leaves. The first local specimen of this variety was collected in 1906 at La Moye, before it was re-discovered in the dunes in the 1960s. The Wild Flower Society (WFS) helped to find the patch where it is currently found several years ago, where a population of about 60 plants grow on the side of a dune.
The Field Pansy (Viola arvensis) and Wild Pansy (Viola tricolor) are also casual species in Jersey, however are more typically considered garden escapes than true natives, as noted by Le Sueur in her Flora. Lester- Garland described the Field Pansy as uncommon in 1903, which it remains today.
Nomenclature, Uses and Culture
The English name for the violet is fairly self-explanatory, being a direct reference to the plant’s colour, not unlike the French name ‘la violette’. The Jersey French name for the plant, ‘du coucou’ or ‘du bliu coucou’ is perhaps named so given the plant’s blooming from January to May, when the call of the cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) was often heard in the countryside. In Guernsey French the flower was known as ‘païn d’coucou’.
According to Le Maistre and Le Sueur, the only place in Jersey where violets were known by a variation of the French name, as ‘eune violette’, was at La Moye, highlighting the variation of the local language once found throughout the island.
In Bois’ Folklore, violets were remedially infused and consumed as a tea if a person or farm animal had bladder troubles, to ease the digestive system (“si nou ‘tait prins sus s’n ieau”). In older gardens the Sweet Violet is known to have been propagated for ornamental value, which ultimately led to its naturalisation in Swiss Valley and Waterworks Valley as a garden escape. In more recent times the flowers of the Sweet Violet have been candied and used to decorate cakes. A painter often affiliated with the island, John Everett Millais, produced a painting entitled ‘The Violet’s Message’ in 1854, which depicts a lady holding a small bunch of violets- although it is unlikely that this portrait bears much relevance to Jersey, as it wasn’t painted in the island.
Although the varying species of violet are present in different environments locally, environments themselves can be developed, destroyed or created, affecting the presence of species. According to Le Sueur, environmental circumstances have locally affected the proliferation of the violet, as seen after a great fire at Grosnez in 1969. She writes that parts of the headland were ‘covered in sheets of flowering violets’ just over a year afterwards – iterating the effect of environmental conditions on a plant’s abundance. It is probable that when heathland and cliffs were cleared to collect Gorse and Bracken in the past, smaller, less dominant flowers such as violets were more abundant in coastal areas.
As the natural environment is altered and habitats develop, it is increasingly important that common and rare species of plant are recorded to monitor biodiversity.
If you have any records of violets they would be gratefully received here.
- Pg 112, Sterry, ‘Collins Complete Guide to British Wild Flowers’, 2006
- Plate 233 and annotation, Provost, ‘Atlas de repartition des plantes vasculaires de Basse Normandie’ Presses Universitaires de Caen, 1993
- Pg 129, Le Maistre, ‘Dictionnaire Jersiais-Francais’ Don Balleine 1976 ed.
- Pg 35 and 51, Le Sueur, ‘A Natural History of Jersey’, Phillimore 1976
- Pg 99, Le Sueur, ‘Flora of Jersey’, La Société Jersiaise, 1984
- Pg 110 -110, Lester-Garland, ‘Flora of the Island of Jersey’, 1903
- Pg 596-597, Bois, ‘Jersey Folklore and Superstitions’ Vol II, Authorhouse 2010
- Pg 87, Beardshaw, ‘100 Plants that almost changed the World’, Papadakis 2013
To read a similar article on a plant species in Jersey please click here.
About the author: Dominic Hodnett is an amateur nature enthusiast and member of La Société Jersiaise, an environmental and heritage organisation founded in Jersey in 1873. He is in his final year at Victoria College and hopes to start studying Law at university in the autumn. Dominic is also a former employee of Jersey Heritage and a volunteer at the Jersey Archive.