ROSES are red (dilly dilly), violets are blue… hold on, no they’re not – they’re violet. I suppose the author writing the original verse felt that poetic licence was justified as “violets are violet” would sound silly and “purple” neither rhymes nor scans.

Interestingly, the colour violet was named after the flower and not the other way round; the ancient Greeks gave the name “ion” to a small, purplish woodland plant whose delicate perfume they associated with love. The Romans called the same plant “viola” which was translated into Medieval English as “violet” and first used to denote the colour in the 14th century.

The specific plant we are talking about here is the sweet violet (Viola odorata) which is native to the Mediterranean area and maybe Southern England but almost certainly not North Yorkshire, despite many escaping from gardens. Most of the delightful amythyst-coloured blooms gracing the woods and hedgerows of Ryedale this month are those of the wood violet (Viola riviniana), sometimes called the dog violet.

Our Anglo-Saxon forebears had the habit of adding the prefix “dog” or “horse” to anything that they considered a sub-standard variety of something … as in horse radish, dog rose and dog whelk. Our lovely Yorkshire violets earned their distain because they have no scent (an easy way to tell the two species apart by the way).

Our relatively cold March this year has delayed the appearance of some signature spring flowers – it was the last week of March before any wild primroses appeared in my local hedgerows and I spotted my first wood violet only last week. It’s happened to be on a south-facing bank in Fryton Wood near Slingsby on a day of sunshine and showers. Thankfully I had cleverly timed my discovery to coincide with a sunny interlude so lay down on a nearby dry(ish) tussock to make the most of the moment.

There was method in my apparent laziness because I wanted to watch the violets for a while to see if they had any visitors.

Readers of this column last month will know that queen bumblebees are collecting nectar and pollen from every flower that they can find at the moment and, sure enough, after 10 minutes one arrived at my violets.

To be fair, she was more interested in the nearby primroses but did land briefly on the wood violet plant and sipped nectar from each of the five flower-heads in turn. Eventually she buzzed off, covered in a fine dusting of pollen which meant, of course, that the work of the violet flowers was done.

The sole purpose of these blooms is to attract insects with the promise of a meal and then hope that the pollen they accidentally carry away with them will fertilise the next wood violet that they land on.

The plant’s strategy is not as haphazard as it as it might seem and the purple colour is certainly not accidental. Bees’ eyes are particularly sensitive to the blue end of the light spectrum and the wood violet plant ‘knows’ this (in an evolutionary sense) so packs the flower petals with a chemical called anthocyanin which is what gives them their bright violet colour – a veritable bee-beacon.

This plan only works if the bees can actually see the flowers and get to them so, later in the summer when the ground-hugging violets are completely smothered by taller vegetation, the plants don’t bother displaying bright flowers at all.

Instead, they produce tiny flower-buds which don’t ever need to open because inside, the plant fertilises the seeds with its own pollen – a practice known as cleistogamy (meaning closed-marriage).

Other less common violets that you may come across in Ryedale are the hairy violet (Viola hirta) on limestone grassland, particularly around West Ayton, and the marsh violet (Viola palustris) in the boggier areas of the North York Moors.

Traditionally, a Viola with any yellow in its flower tends to be called a pansy but they are very closely related. We have two native pansies growing locally, the wild pansy and the field pansy.