In Sydney, sweet violets (Viola odorata, ht 20 cm) begin flowering in winter and continue into early spring. They are rhizomatous perennials which originated in Western and Southern Europe. They spread enthusiastically via seed and runner to form a verdant groundcover of heart-shaped leaves. They have jaunty, fragrant little flowers and there are many cultivars of varying colours: purple, white, mauve, blues and pinks; there is even an apricot-coloured one and there are some double forms. A pretty tapestry effect can be created by planting patches of different coloured violets together. The original purple and white-flowered forms are probably the most reliable to bloom. Flowering is best where plants receive some winter sun, so underneath deciduous shrubs or trees can be an ideal position, or in a spot that gets morning sun and afternoon shade. I have even grown them in quite a hot, exposed position, as long as they get enough moisture. They don't flower well in very shady spots.
Dividing and replanting the violets into refreshed soil every two years also promotes better blooming and some very keen gardeners remove the leaves in autumn to get more flowers; this also eliminates the shabby foliage which detracts from the blooms in late winter and early spring. Bunches of violets surrounded by a circle of their leaves make delightful winter posies. Cut them in the morning or evening; dipping the bunch of flowers head down into a large bowl of water to soak for a while will extend their vase life, as will spraying a fine mist of water over the flowers when they are in their vase. The flowers can also be turned into sugared violets for cake decorations, by painting the petals with egg white and dipping them into caster sugar!