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Common violet is a stemless, herbaceous, perennial wildflower that is well known for its heart-shaped foliage, blue-violet flowers in spring and summer, and ability to rapidly spread in clumps throughout the landscape. It does well in many tough growing situations and pops up nearly everywhere in Ohio, from cultivated lawns to deep thickets. Rich, moist soils in light shade are ideal conditions, but V. sororia will grow 3 to 8 inches tall in nearly any soil type in full or part sun. It tolerates wet soils and proximity to black walnut trees, and deer usually leave it alone. It’s often maligned as an aggressive weed, yet several states have noted its attributes and claimed it as their state flower. In early spring, glossy leaves with scalloped margins form a basal rosette from which arise short stems with nodding, star-shaped flowers that may appear as purple, white, or a mixture of blue and white. Sororia, Latin for “sister,” refers to common violet’s resemblance to many other purple violet species. Ohio has about 30 indigenous species of violets and countless naturally occurring hybrids, according to “The Buckeye Botanist,” Andrew Lane Gibson. Probably the most common of these species is the common violet; many homeowners who spend time and money trying to eradicate the flower from their yards might be better off to embrace its beauty, durability, and wildlife value.

 

Violets attract butterflies, showy moths, and solitary bees, which are its primary pollinators. One mining bee species, Andrena violae, only forages on violets. The flowers’ nectar attracts early-season butterflies and moths. The caterpillars of fritillary butterflies, such as great spangled and meadow fritillaries, are specialists that need violets to survive. The showy, black-and-white giant leopard moth may also seek out violets as food for its caterpillars. To increase the odds of survival for fritillary butterflies, leave the leaf litter, which also happens to be a cheap and effective mulch for your plants. In late summer, the female great spangled fritillary lays her eggs on or near violets, and the caterpillars take cover in leaf litter through winter and spring. It’s doubly helpful to plant violets in gardens and wooded areas where they are protected from mowing, blowing, and raking.

 

In addition to rhizomes, violets spread by self-seeding. The flowers nearest the ground, called cleistogamous flowers, are self-pollinating and do not actually open. They produce and house seeds in their whitish fruits, which eventually propel the seeds to establish a new colony away from the parent. Like the trillium and trout lily wildflowers, violets have also found a way to entice ants to help with their reproduction. Violet seeds have a small, fatty appendage called an elaiosome that is attractive to ants for food. The ant finds a seed, carries it back to the colony to feed the nutritious elaiosome to larvae, then discards the seed into soft, crumbly soil a distance from the parent plant where it’s safe even from fire.

 

Native habitats include woodlands, stream and river banks, prairies and pastures, lawns, ditches, roadsides, and disturbed soils, especially in shadier areas. Use as a wildflower around trees and in lawns, naturalized areas, woodlands, rock gardens, edgings, and borders. Violets spread vigorously to form a low groundcover along walls and path edges. When mixed with other native perennials, ferns, and mosses, they make a beautiful groundcover for shady spots where growing a lawn may be difficult.

 

Plant Characteristics:

Reaches 3-8” tall and wide.

 

Performs best in full or part sun and tolerates deeper shade.

 

Thrives in moist, well-drained loam but tolerates most soils, including clay, sandy, and rocky.

 

Blue-white flowers with white throats are 1” across and have 4-5 unequal petals/rays—the upper pair is erect and the lower, slightly hairy pair spreads downward. White-green fruits have 3 chambers and turn purple/lavender from April to June.

 

Glossy green leaves are 3-6” long with serrated edges. They have a rounded-oval or heart shape with the base curving into the stem. They can be smooth or hairy (aka woolly blue violet).

 

Wildlife Value:

Violets are a host plant for 29 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including the moths giant leopard, the beggar, and large yellow underwing. Early native bees and flies glean nectar from the flowers. Small mammals and birds such as wild turkeys, bobwhites, grouses, juncos, and mourning doves eat the seeds. Rabbits occasionally browse the leaves.

 

Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:

Native Americans used the mucilaginous leaves for pain relief and treatments for inflammation. Parts of the plant are used as an infusion to promote sleep and to treat respiratory infections. A brewed tea acts as an expectorant. The wintergreen taste in some wild violets is due to the salicylic acid content, which acts as a disinfectant and fungicide and also reduces pain and swelling. The plant is used as a gentle immune system stimulant.

 

Violets are rich in vitamins A and C. The leaves are used to make salads and to thicken stews. The flowers are used to garnish salads and are cooked to make jellies and candies. When dipped in stiff egg whites and rolled in sugar, the flowers make a pretty decoration for cakes.

Violet, Common, Viola sororia

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