This spring I’ve been amused by our wild violets, which have spread suddenly across one half of the lawn. For anyone who has never met them, they are an absolute joy. Each flowering spike bears an asymmetrical corolla that comprises five petals of the most intense purple. Down the throat of the central spur is a delicious little nectary that bees apparently find irresistible.
If I crouch to sniff, it also yields this gentle odour, from which I judge them to be sweet violets, Viola odorata, the one common species in the family that has such a scent. It is highly evocative, bringing to mind my childhood when we used to buy those tubes of purplish sugar known as Parma Violets (a Derbyshire speciality, manufactured in New Mills).
I’m amused by the plants but also instructed, because, while their spread suggests a hint of drama, I am sure that suddenness has nothing to do with it. What is more likely is that some years ago an original pioneer took root and then sent out rhizomes to creep inch-wise across our lawn bank. In fact, I recall registering a violet or two last year and took pictures to celebrate the “arrival”.
This spring the colony has expanded its territory to the extent that there are now 146 flowers in total. Yet the whole process represents 10 years’ patient work and the key lesson is not that the violas themselves have done anything in a rush, rather it is I – my awareness – that has changed overnight.
There is a second major flaw in my account of our violets, namely that they in any way belong to us. In truth, they came without asking. They spread without assistance. They flourished without notice. And it is conceivable that they could die out without me being able to do anything to prevent them. Our only part in this transaction, which has blessed our garden with glorious colour, is to have done nothing: not cut, not sprayed, not worried, not intervened and not mown but once a year. And that, in most gardening, appears to be the hardest thing of all.
• Mark Cocker’s new book, Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late?, is available now from the Guardian Bookshop.