Hands in the Dirt: Wild Violets
Photo and article by Donna Iverson
Wild violets may be small, barely noticeable, and overlooked in favor of the larger more colorful spring flowers. but they have a lot going for them.
First, they are native to the United States, which tulips and daffodils are not. They require no maintenance. They are edible. They provide nectar for many bees and butterflies. They are perennials that spread in a number of different ways. And if you are wanting to replace part of your lawn with a native plant, wild violets may fit the bill.
There are two violets native to the Midwest. Both are perennials. The more common one is Viola sororia, a purple-flowered species that prefers shady, moist, fertile soil. The second native violet is Viola pubescent, which is also called Downy Yellow Violet. Both are hardy to Zone 3 and bloom from April to July. Both go dormant in the summer but their leaves remain green.
Our native violets spread in a number of ways. Some spread by underground rhizomes. Their seeds can be sown by ants and the seeds are also able to self pollinate, exploding when they are dry to a distance of three feet. And of course you can buy the wild seeds from nurseries, like the Vermont Wildflower Farm.
As I have an aspiration to transition from a community gardener to a guerilla gardener, I have purchased wild violet seeds to spread in barren spots in my neighborhood. If you buy seeds, you will need to learn patience. The seeds don’t produce flowers till the fourth year.
It might surprise you to learn that there are two types of violets: stemmed and stemless. The Downy Yellow Violet is stemmed and the Wild Blue Violet is stemless. In other words, the yellow flower grows from a stem and the flower grows out of a leaf axel. Both violets have heart shaped leaves, and are easily identified and not mistaken for anything else.
So if you are a beginning forager, you will have no trouble identifying this common spring wildflower. Its culinary uses are many. The flowers can be used to decorate salads or frozen into ice cubes. The leaves are also edible but only when they are young and in early bloom. Although not toxic, avoid eating the seeds and rhizomes, as it can cause gastric distress.
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