Sunday, April 9, 2017

Violets Are Complicated

Last weekend I attended a violet workshop and hike with the Georgia Botanical Society at Cloudland Canyon State Park. Dr. Harvey Ballard of Ohio University led the workshop and then accompanied us on a hike through the park to find as many of the 11 known species of violets that have been found there in the past. We found most of them and something new too.

Violets are in the Violaceae family, and two genera in that family are represented in Georgia and also in Cloudland Canyon: Viola and Cubelium (formerly Hybanthus).  In general, the southern Appalachian area (like Cloudland) has about 40% of the US violets. Violets do hybridize, so that can make identification a little hard sometimes. Most violet species can make two types of flowers: chasmogamous flowers which are showy and attract insects and cleistogamous flowers which are closed to insects (and obviously not showy). In Georgia, one species that does not make cleistogamous flowers is bird’s foot violet (Viola pedata).

Viola blanda with reddish petiole
Viola canadensis with noticeable stem;
it was abundant on Sitton's Gulch Trail

Identification of violets involves several characteristics. A particular Viola species may be “stemmed” or “stemless.” If the flower grows from a stem, then it is stemmed. If it appears to grow directly from the ground, it is stemless. An example of a stemmed white violet in Georgia is Viola canadensis. Examples of stemless violets in Georgia include the sweet white violet (Viola blanda) and bird’s foot violet (Viola pedata).

Viola eriocarpa has unlobed leaves
Viola tripartita has lobed leaves

Other characteristics include hairs on the leaves, shape of the leaves, hairs (or beards) on the petals, and even the look of the seeds and their capsules. Dr. Ballard says that for best identification, one would consider the flowers, foliage, and fruit from the same plant across the seasons.

For our hike, we started with a list of 11 likely species that we would find: Viola blanda, V. canadensis, V. eriocarpa, V. hastata, V. hirsutula, V. palmata, V. pedata, V. rostrata, V. sororia, and V. tripartita, as well as the green violet, Cubelium concolor. We hiked from the West Rim Trail to Cherokee Falls to Hemlock Falls and finished at the end of Sitton’s Gulch Trail. We found 9 of our target species, several hybrids in the Viola sororia group (the common violet) and one species that we didn’t have on our list, Viola affinis.

Viola hastata has a nice pattern on the leaves
The green violet (Cubelium concolor)

We enjoyed our educational experience with Dr. Ballard. We learned that what many people consider to be a simple little flower is much more complex than we might have thought. The ability of violets to hybridize within related groups creates possibilities beyond the defined set. It was a relief to see Dr. Ballard get just as vexed with a particular plant as I might have done. Violets aren’t simple, they’re complicated!

Common violet (Viola sororia)
Viola sororia with odd color form

Of course, we saw many other beautiful flowers and I will package up pictures of those for next week’s blog. This was my first visit to this beautiful park; it is a very large park (3485 acres) so there is clearly a lot more to explore in the future.


  1. Lucky you to visit Cloudland Canyon and to search for violets.
    Cloudland Canyon is a gorgeous park and I didn't know about it until one of my blogging friends from Scotland asked me about it! I have seen it only one time, in the Spring four years ago and I hope to visit it again one day. (We stayed in one of the cabins for one night, I think we were lucky, they book up way in advance.)

  2. Thanks for writing this up, Ellen! I really wanted to attend, but wasn't able to. Your account helped me feel better about missing.

  3. Nice article! The stemless blues are particularly difficult to get a good grasp of. Regardless of our ability to "name", they are wonderfully crafted flowers of great beauty, even when a weed in our lawns!