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A Feast of Violets

Although diminutive, violets are diverse and beautiful. When in the field with others in the spring, I've noticed that even non-plant-people will often comment on them. Those with more of an intellectual interest in flora ALWAYS remark on violets, but often feel that they are too difficult to try and identify.

They can be tough to pin names on, but not that tough. During the course of my time in West Virginia last week, I saw great blooming rafts of violets of all stripes, and took photos of some of them.

Two tips to greatly narrow the options if you wish to try and name an unknown violet: 1) Color. Is it white, purple, or yellow. That's easy enough. 2) is it caulescent (leafy-stemmed) or acaulescent (lacking aerial leafy stems; leaves and flowers originating from the root). If you can determine these two characters for the violet at hand, you'll have eliminated a large number of possible suspects.

Canada Violet, Viola canadensis. Our most robust species, and some plants such as the one above can resemble little shrubs. White flowers, obviously, and this is a leafy-stemmed species. The flowers are bright white with a luminescent yellow central eye, and it prefers rich wooded hillsides.

This is the American Robin of the violet world: Common Blue Violet, Viola sororia. It occurs everywhere from lawns to beautiful undisturbed woodlands. Sometimes yards will be painted purple with them. The specific epithet sororia means "sisterly" and is a reference to the fact that this species resembles a number of other purple violet species. That it does, and the purple species are the most maddening.

And a yellow one, the Downy Yellow Violet, Viola pubescens. In this part of the world, downies are easily the most frequent of the yellow violets, and occur in a wide range of forested habitats. This is an example of a caulescent, or leafy-stemmed species. Note the rich cinnamon stripes within the flower's eye - the better to lure tiny insect pollinators.

I am always pleased to see many fine specimens of Halberd-leaved Violet, Viola hastata, in West Virginia. The upper leaves of this caulescent species are long, narrow, and pointed. The lower, or basal, leaves are rounder and often become silvery in color, drawing ones eye.

A personal favorite is the elfin Southern Wood Violet, Viola hirsutula. The leaves are half dollar-sized, lying flat on the ground, and become infused with frosty-silver with age. The purple flowers are amongst the smallest of our species. It prefers dry upland oak-dominated woods, and is generally uncommon and scattered.

Always a crowd-pleaser, the pale lavender blooms of Long-spurred Violets, Viola rostrata, sport a clublike extension, or spur. This is a 70 mph drive by species - its particular shade of light purple allows for fast identification at far distances without much of a look. Long-spurs are common in rich woods.

Ah, the interesting yet maddening Palmate-leaved Violet, Viola palmata. Some of the serious violet-heads may take umbrage at my using this name, as they may think it should be called V. triloba. Whatever. Purple violets can be notoriously unfaithful to their own "species", and it is thought that this one is of recent hybrid origin. It's possible to stump the top dogs with some specimens of this thing. Note the hand-shaped leaf in the backdrop, which is arising from the same rhizome as the flower in the foreground.

Close shot of Palmate-leaved Violet flowers. They are amongst the largest of the purple-flowered species, and have a distinctive light purple tint. We can also see the prominent "beards"; the brush of hairs that adorn the lateral petals and sometimes serve to help distinguish various violet species.

An oft-abundant plant of forested floodplains is the Creamy White Violet, Viola striata. It often forms luxuriant drifts, and the flowers are distinctly off-white - not the brilliant shining white of Canada Violet or most of the other white species.

A charming, tiny species is the Sweet White Violet, Viola blanda. That plant in the foreground could practically fit on a quarter. Sweet Whites inhabitat sparsely vegetated rocky substrates, often liberally festooning damp shady rock outcrops. I photographed these on a shaley bank along the drive to Opossum Creek Retreat - ground zero for New River Bird & Nature Festival activities. In fact, I photographed about half of the species that I share in this post within 100 feet of the retreat's main house.

Ack! Another maddening case of Blogger absolutely refusing to post this photo right side up, no matter what I do. It should be rotated 90 degrees clockwise, and if you tilt your head that way you'll see a wonderful Northern White Violet, Viola macloskeyi, positioned properly. It much resembles the previous species, but is somewhat more robust, has green pedicels (flower stems) rather than pinkish ones, and less twisted upper petals. This species is also considerably scarcer, growing in cold saturated springy ground. I photographed this specimen at Cranberry Glades.

Should you wish to make more sense of these little plants, I will hope that this post has helped.


Anonymous said…
I may bookmark this post - my violet ID skills reach their limit at purple vs. yellow vs. white, so now I'll have to start watching for leafy stems as well. Thanks for the info! My favorites are the ones I've found that are white with purple streaks, no idea what species they are.
Cape May Wren said…
*sigh* I sure do like a man who appreciates little wildflowers...

Lovely photos, thank you for sharing!
Kathi said…
I know all the kinds of violets. There are 3: Blue, white, and yellow.

No, seriously, I am one of those people who throws up her hands in despair when it comes to ID'ing violets. Your tips will be helpful. (If I can remember them.)

Cape May Wren said…
(Beautiful post on violets and I blog about road kill and slug poo... *sighing again*)

My mother calls the blue-striped white violets "confederate violets" because that's what her mother called them, but I don't know their scientific name.

Agreeing with Kathi. *lol* I looked at the list of violets in the wildflower guide index this morning. Eek!

And I just realized there's a double-meaning in this post's title: violets actually are edible. I believe people "sugar" them...
Jim McCormac said…
Glad these tips were of use! And isn't THAT important to be able to name them, they'll look every bit as smashing even without knowing the name.

And yes, violets are rather tasty - you can eat the flowers of the purple ones raw and they're kind of sweet.

Anonymous said…
I have Macloskey's Violet growing wild on my property:

Maybe this picture will help.

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