Sunday, April 21, 2013

Violets Are Blue Too

Yes, violets are blue but they are also purple and white and even yellow. Scorned by many as a weed, the common lawn violet (Viola sororia) has brightened many a small child’s day with its colorful flowers that are so easy to pick. Approximately 24 different species of Viola are native to Georgia with a great many more natural hybrids and color forms. These little plants flourish in all environments from sun to full shade and from dry prairie to wetlands.

The long spur violet, Viola rostrata
Much of the scorn for violets comes from their ability to reproduce in high numbers. If you have planted pansies (bred from Viola tricolor, a non-native violet), you may be familiar with the seed capsules that form. For the weedier forms, that is not the whole reproductive story. Species like V. sororia, the common violet, also have cleistogamous flowers. Those flowers are located at the base of the plant, they do not have petals and they never open so they are self-pollinated (and they reproduce exact copies of the parent). 

Violets are host plants for several butterflies, primarily for species in the Greater Fritillary group, but they are also used by some species in the Lesser Fritillary group (which also feed on passionflower).  I found an interesting tidbit in an article on the North American Butterfly Association page. The article says that eggs on not laid on the plant itself, but rather on nearby debris like dead leaves. In addition, the caterpillar feeds at night and hides in the debris during the day rather than stay on the host plant. Another good reason not to clean up dead leaves!

Viola tripartita
I have come across more violets than I would have imagined in my plant wanderings – until I took the time to identify them and count them up. I found 3 different species on a trip to The Pocket of Pigeon Mountain one spring: Viola canadensis (Canadian white violet), Viola rostrata (long spur violet, found in both blue and white forms), and Viola tripartita (a yellow violet whose name is meant to describe the variation in leaves).

Canadian violet, Viola canadensis

Common violet, Viola sororia

Around the neighborhood I have seen both common lawn violets: Viola sororia and Viola bicolor (an annual species known as field pansy and a welcome early spring flower).  

I have also found in my wooded areas a deep purple Viola rostrata and the silvery-leaved Viola hirsutula (Southern woodland violet).  

Viola bicolor on left; Viola hirsutula on right (click to enlarge)

Viola x primulifolia
A white violet that I found in just one area of my yard appears to be known as a natural hybrid: Viola x primulifolia. I have less of it this year perhaps due to crowding by some of the plants I have added to the area. The seeds probably came in with something else.

The woodland Viola hastata

The large flowered Viola pedata
On plant rescues in my area we often find the yellow Viola hastata (halberd-leaf violet) in the woods. It’s a cheery sight in the shade. Sometimes we have found Viola pedata (birdfoot violet) in sunny areas with poor soil. 

In my opinion it is one of the most beautiful ones – large flowers are complimented by very attractive foliage. It thrives on poor soil and some gardeners have killed it with too much love (rich soil).

Recently I was on a field trip near Augusta and had a chance to discover a Coastal Plain violet, Viola lanceolata (lance leaved bog violet), in the moist conditions of a Carolina bay. It was happily growing and blooming in both standing water conditions and drier areas nearby.

Quite a variation in color forms exist among the violets, especially the blue ones. I have seen white forms of several of the species noted for being blue; V. bicolor has a large variation on a regular basis probably due to good cross-pollination.

"Confederate" violet variation of V. sororia
The one variation that seems to get the most attention is a blotched form of the common violet, V. sororia.  Sometimes listed as Viola sororia priceana (a name which does not follow binomial convention) or Viola sororia f. priceana or it is known by the common name “Confederate violet”. It is basically just a color variation that can be fairly widespread once it appears (probably thanks to those cleistogamous flowers).

Ok so that is ten different ones for me – I’ve certainly got quite a few more to find. Next time you see one of the many, many violets, I hope you will think kindly of it and smile.


  1. I am always smitten by the small blooms. I have several varieties growing in the woodland garden and sunny areas. I love how they show up in the most unexpected places. Thanks for the detailed profile on all the different violets.

  2. I have searched in vain for fritillary caterpillars among violets. I look for signs of feeding. But no luck so far. Now I know I should look for activity at night. I will keep searching. Perhaps you will have better luck than me. Take pictures if you find any, please.
    I'll send this article to a friend who was pondering about the many species of violets.

  3. A terrific article and thank you. I treasure my Violets that are hosting the Diana butterflies here at home! - Kat (StayAtHomeKat)