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Violets welcome spring in garden and forest

| January 9, 2022 1:00 AM

Every spring since I’ve lived in this house, I’ve been welcomed by the fabulous gift of swaths of purple violets — always in the shadier Sanctuary area and on into the edges of the adjoining front yard. They grow so thickly one must be careful not to crush some underfoot. Always shyly facing downward, their sweet fragrant faces must be lifted by a careful finger so as to be loved and praised and thanked for their return!

My former “down the road” neighbor had a swale behind his house with a path that led down to Schweitzer Creek. While I was mooning over my purple beauties, he had a plethora of yellow violets to die for! It seems the nearness of water encourages their presence over their purple kin.

All this is leading to a story — some of it from an article I wrote long ago for the Scotchman Newsletter — so here it is.

•••

After all these many years of thinking of myself as a “hiker,” I finally realize I’ve been fooling myself. I’ve never, even in my younger, hardier days, been a hiker. I’ve been an observer.

From the very first time that Daddy took me — his little partner — into the woods and showed me the wonders there, I’ve been an observer: because that’s what my father was. He looked, touched, studied, analysed everything from tree bark to footprints to rocks, leaves, flora and streams. Everything had a story, a meaning; everything was absolutely new and amazing and important.

Forest duff (perhaps hosting a colony of Indian pipe), fungi, moss, fallen cedar logs with their crop of new seedlings growing from their moldering remains — all was imparted to me as part of “ Environment 101” so to speak. He passed his passion and enthusiasm on to me as his heritage, and always with the deepest respect and reverence.

One day we came upon a shady glade with a shallow brook gurgling through it. Mossy rocks in the water were covered with mats of the lovely Twin Flower (Linnaea borealis), and along the banks, tucked among Birch and Cottonwoods, were small bouquets of yellow violets (Violaceae). I was awestruck and Daddy was thrilled — probably for me, since it was my first sight of them, and said “now you’ve been given the prettiest gift of all” — and he was right. He set about with his hunting knife, carefully digging out one plant, getting the deep root system well contained, soaked his handkerchief in the brook and carefully nested the plant in moss to take home to Mother for planting on the shady side of our house in Chilco. Later, she too, was thrilled — what a sweet gift, after all! She planted it in the dappled shade of a couple of Aspens — apropos to the site from which they came, and they lived and spread for our remaining years there.

A color variation of the purple violet (Viola purpurea), the yellow violets are not seen as often as their more fragrant relation, but are still more easily found than the rarer white Viola beckwithii, which generally prefers drier, more gravelly sites. All three can be found in our area, however, often unexpectedly.

All species of the wild Viola are edible, and while the yellow has an elegant charm on a frosted cake, the richly fragrant purple actually tastes like it smells! Perfect for desserts (as well as tiny bouquets in mini-vases; toothpick holders or egg-cups work well!). Candy them for use on cakes and cookies, or use them as is to add beauty and unique flavor to summer’s green salads. The leaves are edible too, and can also be used for tea.

If you’re starting the trek up into the Scotchmans, shortly on the route you will see the downward trail to the right that leads to Lake Darling. If you follow that trail, as I did years ago, you’ll come eventually to a shady, moist area surrounding a bog that holds (or used to, at any rate) clumps of purple violets among mossy rocks. There were vestiges of Skunk Cabbage in the bog, as I recall. If you find it, let me know!

Sometimes, out in the wilderness, the “bigness” of it all — the great rocks, tree-filled canyons, far-reaching views, and often grueling trails — take our minds and attention away the small, inconspicuous, precious things. Look down, now and then, at what’s hiding beside the path, so you don’t overlook the “prettiest gift of all.”

Valle Novak writes the Country Chef and Weekend Gardener columns for the Daily Bee. She can be reached at bcdailybee@bonnercountydailybee.com or by phone at 208-265-4688 between the hours of 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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(Photo courtesy MARK TURNER PHOTOGRAPHY)

The five-petaled bright yellow flowers of Round-leaf violets appear in early spring with brownish-purple veins in the lower three petals.

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Valle Novak

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