Sunday, May 22, 2011

Violets: A Most Sercretive Wildflower

A "lion" among wildflowers.
 "The broken glass
And the rusty nails
Where the wild violets grow
Say goodbye to the railroad
And the mad dogs of summer
And everything that I know. . ."
--Tom Waits, singer/songwriter

The wild violets (Viola sororia)have been in bloom for weeks here now, filling cracks in pavement, patches in lawns, thicket bottoms and drab ditches with the color purple (and less commonly, a mixture of purple and white). I look forward to seeing these flowers dappling the landscape in mid to late spring, but this year, it's not the colorful blossoms I have been waiting for. As the plants became more conspicuous I began to seek out the ones that had been in bloom the longest (including the one that seems to be slowly sneaking under my garden fence). I lifted up the petals and leaves to peek at the root zone of these plants, often to find only bare soil. Finally, the other morning I found what I had been waiting for!
The lower petals are longer, and serve as a landing pad for pollinators. Insects are guided by the petal stripes to where the nectar is, deep inside the spur at the back of the flower.

Underneath the conspicuous blue-violet flowers and the glossy, heart-shaped leaves, this plant has a vital secret. Sometime after it grows the flowers designed to attract pollinators, the violet grows a second set of flowers that remain hidden and closed. Because these flower shoots barely break the soil surface, they can be hard to find, but these are the key to the plant's propagation. Although violets can spread using short rhizomous roots, they also rely on seeds, and cleistogamous (hidden) flowers produce many more seeds than the insect pollinated ones.

The cleistogamous flowers barely breach the soil surface, and never actually open.
Both types of seeds, the ones produced by two cross-pollinated flowers and the ones produced by just one cleistogamous flower, eventually begin to dry and shrink. The pressure causes the seed pod to burst so that the seeds are projected at some distance from the parent plant. Some of them serve as meals to ground-feeding birds and chipmunks, but many others grow into new plants that add dashes of purple in all sorts of places. The short-stemmed flowers are popular in small wildflower bouquets that children are prone to picking, and the leaves and flowers are edible.


  1. How interesting! I didn't know this. Those little 'back' flowers don't look like much, but now I see how they can spread so well. Good pics.

  2. What a wonderfully lyrical post and packed with all kinds of things I didn't know about violas. It fits with something I've posted today and I'm creating a link NOW!

  3. Candied violets yes, but the leaves? Do they taste good??

  4. Very interesting ... I love trying to learn about the secrets of plants ... thanks for a lovely and informative post.

  5. I didn't know that either. It's too late this year - it's past blooming time and the deer have already munched our plants - but I'm going to be out there looking next year.

  6. Well, well. When you started talking about landing strips, I thought you were going to compare violets with orchids. But those hidden flowers! Fantastic. Thanks for this lovely information (and so well written, too).


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