Once again I find myself on my local rail-trail. I am trying to get my heart-rate up so this meander will count as some form of exercise, but I keep stopping to look very closely at tiny little wildflowers blooming everywhere. It is truly like I stepped into a jewelry box. Virginia Bluebells coat the hillside in blues and pinks. White saxifrage, rue anemone and Dutchman’s britches dot the trailsides like scattered pearls. Various shades of jade and emerald are starting to appear on gray branches. The creek along the trail, very high after all these rains, slithers through the color like a gold chain. I should just go to a boring track, who can focus on fitness with all this beauty around? Each time I squat down to investigate, that’s a rep…right? Today I am enamored by the violet. If I am going to take the jewelry box analogy just a little too far…these are the amethysts.
My first memory of gardening with violets is ripping the weedy aggressive buggers out of landscape beds (beneath pussy willows* and azaleas, if I remember correctly) and getting extraordinarily frustrated because I could never get the entire root mass out of the ground. Of course this is before I knew better. Since then I have become an advocate for the lowly violet. When talking to people about their landscapes, one thing everyone is always looking for is a native ground cover. This is a tall order in these parts. Take a look around the northeastern woods and fields. What type of evergreen ground cover do you see?
There’s not many to choose from. The people I am talking with typically want a pachysandra-esque look using native plants. Not going to happen. We just don’t have the native plants for that. That aggressive evergreen ground cover doesn’t have a place in our plant communities. If we want landscapes reflecting our surroundings, supporting native animals and systems, we have to think a little more creatively about our plant choices.
Enter the violet. There are more than 75 species of violets in North America. Even well-trained and well-practiced botanists have trouble telling some of them apart. (Wondering what type of violet you have discovered? Check out this web-based key to violets.) They like to intermingle, creating new forms and varieties all the time. I will get to their landscape value shortly, but first a brief plea for you to investigate them up close and observe.
Sara Stein, in Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Back Yards (Have you read this? You must. It is a fantastic read, approachable, fun, informative and inspiring) writes about violets:
“I think, for example, of common violets.
These flowers are unusual because they bloom for so long – nearly 3 weeks apiece – and they move. They twist their petals; they lay them flat; they hang their heads; they lift them. Each position advertises the location of the flower’s nectar reward to a different sort of insect arriving from below or above and provides the pollinator with the landing platform most convenient for it. In addition, the violet produces a secret flower that stays shut, digs into the ground, and fertilizes itself. Ripe seeds are propelled a modest distance from the mother plant – far enough to avoid competition, not so far they land in unsuitable terrain. In case some better spot lies beyond ballistic range, violets induce ants to disperse their seeds by larding them with fat.” (page 71)
To those asking for a native ground cover, I recommend violets. That lowest layer of the landscape elusive to so many native plant gardeners in this region can be filled with these spring beauties. Some violets, like the Common Violet, the little purple guy seen everywhere, spread reliably into lawns and garden beds alike, due, in part, to the fact they propel their seeds, similarly to Witch Hazels. Their heart shaped leaves, though not evergreen, create a dense cover keeping weeds at bay and moisture where it belongs. Sure, they’re not evergreen, but they shoot their seeds! And they flower for 3 weeks in whites, yellows and purples! Pachysandra can’t compete! Other violets may be the ones inspiring the term “shrinking violet” as they require a bit more coddling than the Common Blue. Birdsfoot Violet and the Downy Yellow Violet may not make a fantastic ground cover, but they will add spring wonder to your yard.
After seeing the diversity of violets along the rail-trail I decided to take a closer look to see what I could find in my own back yard. Once you are looking for violets it is amazing to see just what is there. I found white violets streaked with purple, the common bright purple violet and to my great joy and surprise, a lone downy yellow violet in my woods.
Had I never been distracted by violets along the trail, I may never have taken the time to explore my 2 acres for violets specifically. And I never would have seen this little fuzzy one blooming all alone among the oak, maple and hickory leaves protected by boulders.
How time and experience change actions. Now instead of ripping violets out of the landscape, begrudging their tenacity, I am encouraging them to take over my diverse excuse for a lawn and hop on into my garden beds. Where you once saw weeds, I encourage you to see beauty and diversity.
Go on your own Violet Adventure. Explore your backyard or local natural area. I headed over to Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve in New Hope, PA to see what violets I could find there. Public Gardens and Arboreta are terrific places to learn about all kinds of plants. Often the plants are labeled and you will find more varieties than at the typical garden center or backyard.
Here are some of the beauties I found at the Preserve. They include a rare violet, the Northern Coastal Violet (Viola brittoniana). Another reason to visit and support public gardens is their ability to grow, protect and educate about rare plants.
Where did your violet adventure take you? What gems did you find?
(Still trying to figure out what violets you found? Check out Go Botany, this online key to plants from the New England Wildflower Society will help you sort out your findings. Geared towards plants of New England, many plants can be found throughout the eastern and central US. Hint: To get a quick start, type Viola into the search box at the top.)
*Public Service Announcement: If you are interested in learning more about Pussy Willows – Google Salix discolor. This is certainly a time when knowing the scientific name for a plant saves you humiliation and getting on some type of ‘list’ I’m sure. I learned this the hard way… at work…