Viola tricolor, Darwin and ecology

Viola tricolor

This tiny, beautiful little plant appears each year in unexpected places in our garden, germinating from seed scattered from who knows where. It is also known as heartsease, a lovely name perhaps due to its pleasant perfume, or maybe to the arrangement of petals, described by William Turner in 1848 as  ‘Two faces in a hoode’, which led to the flower being seen as a symbol of love.

In French the name for any flower in this family is pensée (from which comes the English pansy), meaning thought, since it is an emblem of  remembering.   This enables me to make a connection to a giant of nineteenth-century thought.  I wanted to start with this plant because of its link to the name I’ve chosen for this blog and to Charles Darwin.  In The origin of species Darwin writes:

I have, also, reason to believe that humble-bees are indispensable to the fertilisation of the heartsease (Viola tricolor), for other bees do not visit this flower….Hence I have very little doubt, that if the whole genus of humble-bees became extinct or very rare in England, the heartsease and red clover would become very rare or wholly disappear.  The number of humble-bees in any district depends in a great degree on the number of field-mice, which destroy their combs and nests….Now the number of mice is largely dependent, as everyone knows, on the number of cats….Hence it is quite credible that the presence of a feline animal in large numbers might determine, through the intervention first of mice and then of bees, the frequency of certain flowers in that district!

He goes on just a few lines later to say:

In some cases it can be shown that widely-different checks act on the same species in different districts.  When we look at the plants and bushes clothing an entangled bank, we are tempted to attribute their proportional numbers and kinds to what we call chance. But how false a view is this!

Darwin’s great work was published in 1859, before the word ‘ecology’ even existed: it was coined in 1866 by one of Darwin’s greatest fans, the dashing German biologist Ernst Haeckel. Clearly, however, Darwin’s vast knowledge as a naturalist gave him an awareness of the interdependence of all living things, plants and animals, and of their environments.  There’s an interesting series of radio programmes on Darwin, originally broadcast to celebrate his bicentenary in 2009, available for listening here for anyone who wants an alternative to reading his magnum opus.

Note: From noise to aeronautics: for more on how Darwin’s term  ’humblebee’ was replaced by today’s word ‘bumblebee’  see here.

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22 Comments

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22 responses to “Viola tricolor, Darwin and ecology

  1. Welcome to blogging….and spending hours each day taking photos! This is a beautiful photo of the Viola in lovely light. I’m looking forward to seeing your other work being published here soon.

  2. Nice first post and Miles – I’ve got that tack too.

  3. Well what a wonderful surprise, this was a great first post, very well put together and I leave knowing more than I did when I arrived.. i like that.. learning is my favourite thing!! c

  4. Teri,Fiddletown,CA

    You are the most eloquent couple. We ate artichokes and spinach pasta from the garden today and admired the violets spreading in the woodsy parts of the yard. Study nature, not books…a favorite quote.
    Happy blogging ,
    Teri

  5. Hi Lojardinier and welcome to blogging! Love the post and the music – hunblebee/bumblebee, very interesting….

  6. Congratulations on your new obsession. This post delights me in every direction: the music, the picture, the writing, and the links. (So sad, the story of the replacement with humblebee with bumblebee–which I imagined was a reference to its bumbling movements.) I could ask one small addition: a link to sign up to be notified by email when there is a new post. That’s a god-send for me, so I don’t have to go checking daily to see if there’s a new one. I signed up to “follow,” but as I have no fancy cell phone, I don’t think that will do the trick.

    • It’s great to encounter a firm friend of Chaiselongue directly, so to speak. I’m a bit worried about the ‘obsession’ – it all takes time and someone’s got to get the meals ready! I’ll try to set up the email link – this may need CL’s advice.

  7. Now this is a fine way to start a blog! Welcome and I look forward to reading many more fine posts from you — and learning a great deal in the process.

  8. I’ve heard lots about you from Chaiselongue (all good!!) and nice to see and hear from the man himself. I will be interested to compare your wild flowers with the huge variety of Irish varieties that grow in abundance in West Cork, but you might have to convert me to jazz 🙂

  9. Andrew John Smith

    Well, lojardinier, you’ve set yourself a very high standard with your first post. But I’m sure that you can maintain it.
    I prefer the name “Bumble Bee” to “humble bee”. Bumble resonates with the genus name Bombus, (which like humble refers to the sound of the insect) and bumble accurately describes the flight of the post hibernation queen as she searches out a nest site. And her nest site, in many of the species, is a vacated mouse nest. I think modern farming is more of a threat than mice are.

  10. Ahhh the viola, my favorite flower! And, your botanical knowledge is very welcomed. I will be following your blog, because I love flowers, but know very little about them. I liked your comment in the last paragraph, from Darwin, about the interdependence of all living things. I believe that citizens of the earth, globally, are coming to terms with the significance of this concept.

    • Hello! I hope you’re right in the last sentence. My plants are going to be Mediterranean, since I live in the south of France -I hope some of them are found where you are too.

  11. Ceridwen

    I tried (and thought I had managed) to leave a comment when Chaiselongue first nudged me about your blog but now I find it did not happen. It was a delight to find such a rich lode of botanical lore and what I tried to enquire on reading this first entry was: are you familiar with the poetry of Ruth Padel, poet and direct descendant of Charles Darwin? One of her books is called Darwin, a Life in Poems. She is truly someone who straddles the two worlds of science and literature. I feel sure that your other half must be familiar with her work. I shall follow your blog with keen interest.

    • I’m very pleased you like what I’ve tried to do so far, especially since it was one of your blips that started me off down this trail. It was about Darwin and barnacles, and that sent me off to his biography, and then to the Origin. I don’t know Ruth Padel’s writing, but I’ll follow your advice to find out!

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