Viola odorata is a species of the genus Viola native to Europe and Asia, but has also been introduced to North America and Australia. It is commonly known as wood violet, sweet violet, English violet, common violet, florist's violet, or garden violet. The plant is known as Banafsa, Banafsha or Banaksa in India. It is a hardy herbaceous flowering perennial.
V. odorata can be distinguished by the following characteristics:
- the flowers are aromatic,
- the flowers are normally either dark violet or white,
- the leaves and flowers are all in a basal rosette,
- the style is hooked (and does not end with a rounded appendage),
- the leaf-stalks have hairs which point downwards, and
- the plant spreads with stolons (above-ground shoots).
These perennial flowers can mature at a height of 4 to 6 inches and a spread of 8 to 24 inches. The species can be found near the edges of forests or in clearings; it is also a common "uninvited guest" in shaded lawns or elsewhere in gardens.
The sweet scent of this flower has proved popular throughout the generations particularly in the late Victorian period, and has consequently been used in the production of many cosmetic fragrances and perfumes. The French are also known for their violet syrup, most commonly made from an extract of violets. In the United States, this French violet syrup is used to make violet scones and marshmallows. The scent of violet flowers is distinctive with only a few other flowers having a remotely similar odour. References to violets and the desirable nature of the fragrance go back to classical sources such as Pliny and Horace when the name ‘Ion’ was in use to describe this flower from which the name of the distinctive chemical constituents of the flower, the ionones – is derived. In 1923 Poucher writes that the flowers are widely cultivated both in Europe and the East for their fragrance, with both the flowers and leaves being separately collected and extracted for fragrance, and flowers also collected for use in confectionary galenical syrup  and in the production of medicine.
There is some doubt as to whether the true extract of the violet flower is still commercially available at all. It certainly was in the early 20th Century, but by the time Steffen Arctander was writing in the late 1950s and early 1960s production had "almost disappeared".
In herbal medicine, V. odorata has been used for a variety of respiratory ailments, digestive problems, insomnia, and skin disorders. However, there is insufficient evidence to support its effectiveness for any of these uses.
The violet flower was a favorite in ancient Greece and became the symbol of Athens. Scent suggested sex, so the violet was an emblematic flower of Aphrodite and also of her son Priapus, the deity of gardens and generation.
Iamus was a son of Apollo and the nymph Evadne. He was abandoned by his mother at birth. She left him lying in the Arkadian wilds on a bed of violets where he was fed honey by serpents. Eventually, he was discovered by passing shepherds who named him Iamus after the violet (ion) bed.
This may be the species mentioned in Shakespeare's famous lines:
- "I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
- Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
- Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
- With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine"
- Bruce Asakawa; Sharon Asakawa (3 September 2001). California Gardener's Guide. Cool Springs Press. pp. 38–39. ISBN 978-1-930604-47-6. Retrieved 25 November 2011.
- "USDA GRIN Taxonomy".
- "Viola odorata 'Wellsiana' (Vt)". Royal Horticural Society.
- Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin by Steffen Arctander, First published 1961, ISBN 0-931710-36-7, ISBN 978-0-931710-36-0
- Perfumes Cosmetics and Soaps by W. A. Poucher, Vol. 2, Chapter V Monographs on Flower Perfumes. First published 1923
- "Violet". Herbbee.
- An Introduction to Perfumery by Curtis & Williams 2nd Edition, 2009, ISBN 978-0-9608752-8-3, ISBN 978-1-870228-24-4
- "Essential oils". Bo Jensen.
- "Sweet Violet". WebMD.
- PDR for Herbal Medicines.
- Audrey Wynne Hatfield (1973). A Herb for Every Ill. St. Martin's Press. p. 173.
- Margaret Roberts (2000). Edible & Medicinal Flowers. New Africa Books. p. 79.
- Christopher Cumo (2013). Encyclopedia of Cultivated Plants. ABC-CLIO. p. 1113.
- "Plants and flowers of Greek myth". Theoi Project.
- Shakespeare, William. A midsummer night's dream.
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