NPSNJ Native Plant of the Year 2018:
Viola sororia (Common Blue Violet)

NPSNJ Native Plant of the Year 2018: Viola sororia (Common Blue Violet)

violetThe diminutive flowers of this lovely wildflower can be found everywhere in New Jersey, and well beyond. Common names include Dooryard Violet, Wooley Blue Violet, Hooded Violet, and Common Meadow Violet. A low-growing (4-8" tall) perennial, it is extremely adaptable, thriving in sun to shade under dry to moist conditions. It can tolerate foot traffic, mowing, proximity to Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) trees, and very poor, acid, gravelly, or clay soil. The deep purple flowers have white and yellow highlights deep in their throats and bloom early in the spring, serving as a cheery reminder that warmer weather is on the way. A white form (V. sororia priceana) has white flowers with dark purple striping on the throat, and is commonly known as Confederate Violet. The dark green heart-shaped leaves that arise from short, thick, branching rhizomes can make for a lovely, attractive ground cover.

violet Common Blue Violets, like many violets, produce seeds two different ways - both sexually, through chasmogamy, and asexually, through cleistogamy. In the spring, flowers may be visited by native bees such as Mason bees (Osmia sp.), Halictid bees (Agapostemon sp, Lasioglossum sp.), the Violet specialist Mining bee Adrena violae, as well as other pollinators. These pollinated flowers result in seeds in the normal (chasmogamous) fashion of most flowering plants. Violets, however, also produce seed in late summer from basal, non-opening, self-pollinating flowers, in a process called cleistogamy. In both cases, within a few weeks the seed capsules turn upright, open, and shoot their seeds – distributing them as far as 9' away from the original plant. Yes, you may wind up with flowers in your lawn, but why is that a bad thing? 

The flowers, seeds, and leaves of Common Blue Violet have great wildlife value. Although the plants themselves are generally highly deer resistant, the seed capsules are readily eaten by Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura), Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo), Bobwhite Quail (Colinus virginianus), and White-Footed Mice (Peromyscus leucopus). Ants will also find and further distribute the seeds, for the reward of feeding on the small, fleshy elaiosome attached to each seed. Perhaps violets' most important wildlife value, however, is their role as host plants for the caterpillars of many Fritillary Butterflies. In New Jersey, the Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele), Meadow Fritillary (Boloria bellona), and rare Aphrodite Fritillary (Speyeria aphrodite) rely on Violets to raise their caterpillars. Other Fritillary Butterflies not found in NJ (the Regal Fritillary, Speyera idalia, Atlantis Fritillary, Speyeria atlantis, and Silver-Bordered Fritillary, Boloria selene) also rear their young exclusively on Violets. These insects are very casual about laying their eggs, and lay them either randomly or only nearby the plants that their young rely upon for food. The scattered distribution of Violet seeds, each growing into a new plant, perfectly matches the egg-laying distribution of these butterflies. 

The Common Blue Violet is recognized and loved far and wide and has been so for a very long time. It is the state flower of New Jersey (first proposed in 1913). The school children of Illinois (1907), Rhode Island (1897), and Wisconsin (1908) all helped to establish the Common Blue Violet as the state flower of those states as well. Common Blue Violets, much like the European violets that were sold by Eliza Doolittle (My Fair Lady), loved by Napoléon's wife Josephine, and worn by Eleanor Roosevelt, can make beautiful bouquets, and have historically been celebrated and enjoyed in many ways. Dutchess County in NY was home to a large greenhouse-based cut Violet industry in the early 1900's, which supplied NYC and beyond with European Violets for bouquets, nosegays, and boutonnieres. But when the fields around Rhinebeck New York turned purple with wild Common Blue Violets every spring, it was the wild violets that were celebrated as the annual 'Purple Thunderstorm' heralding the return of spring. Violets have also seen use as edible garnishes; candied violets can still be found adorning fancy cakes and pastries today. These lovely little underutilized wildflowers can provide you with spring garden flowers, beautiful little springtime bouquets, and many beautiful butterflies to visit you in summer. 

Randi V Wilfert Eckel, PhD
Native Plant Society of NJ  

All Photos © Randi V Wilfert Eckel

violet violet