Violets Aren’t Always Violet!

As a youngster, I thought violets should be just one color: the shade of Crayola violet in my crayon box. In fact, violet flowers aren’t always violet! Many are blue, shades of purple, white and even yellow. The native common violet, or wooly blue violet, grows in almost every Minnesota county and in most of the eastern United States and Canada. It’s what many of us picture when we think “violet” (excluding African violets, which are a different plant family altogether).

The common violet or wooly violet (Viola sororia) blooms from April to June in the eastern United States and Canada.

Violets are a sure sign of spring in Minnesota and bloom from April to June. You’ll often find them in woodlands, thickets, gardens, lawns, along roadsides and even growing in sidewalk cracks. Individual species of violets can be tricky to identify and botanists disagree on how to classify them. Many of the backyard and roadside violets are common violets (Viola sororia), which may be blue, purple or white. The downy yellow violet (Viola pubescens) is also common in most Minnesota counties. It differs from many violets in that the flower stem arises from the leaf axil instead of growing separately from the corm.

The white form of the common violet clearly shows the pollinator “honey guides” on the bottom petal.

This violet came from my mom’s garden. I’d never seen violets this shade and loved them.

The downy yellow violet’s (Viola pubescens) stems and undersides of leaves are covered in soft, downy hair.

A typical native violet has heart-shaped or circular leaves with rounded teeth. In most species, the flower stem grows directly from the corm, which is similar to a bulb. Each leafless stem holds a single five-petaled flower. The purple-veined area on the lower petal is a nectar guide for pollinators. Bees see ultraviolet light and scientists think that the enhanced pattern visible to their eyes helps lead them to the nectar. In early May, typical pollinators are mason bees, tiny sweat bees and skipper butterflies. But, because the early spring weather can be cold and pollinators may be inactive, violets produce a second type of flower called a cleistogamous flower that doesn’t open. It self-pollinates and forms a seed capsule that ripens, bursts and ejects small brown seeds away from the plant. These flowers don’t form until after the trees leaf out. Look for them underneath violet plants later in the summer.

The violet plant is an important host for the caterpillars of many species of fritillary butterflies. Just as monarch larvae feed solely on milkweed plants, most fritillary caterpillars feed only on violets. Humans can eat violet blossoms, but not the rest of the plant, which is toxic. The blossoms provide vitamins A and C. In earlier times, they were used to make a simple, sweet jelly that’s also beautiful. To learn how to make violet jelly, and about other ways the flowers were used, visit PBS Wisconsin’s “The Wisconsin Gardener” for a brief, interesting interview.

Many fritillary caterpillars feed only on violets. This adult great-spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele)  nectars on pink bergamot.

Violets sometimes form patches, especially in a garden or lawn. They are a good ground cover in shady places where grass does’t grow well. If you have too many growing for your liking, they are easy to remove. Just make sure that you pull out the entire root — and please consider leaving a few for early pollinators and for fritillary caterpillars to eat!

Spring Ephemerals: Hepatica

This year, I look for spring close to home. I haven’t hiked in a nature preserve yet, and we’ve stayed home from our cabin. I miss those places, but I’m enjoying many simple delights right here, including a few native spring flowers. While bloodroot blooms fade, another spring ephemeral¹, hepatica, buds and opens.

Round-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis) blooms range from white to purple in color.

Hepatica, liverleaf, or liverwort, is named for its leaves that are three-lobed and can be a brownish-bronze color (like the human liver) at winter’s end. Each spring, the fuzzy flower stalks push up through the old leaves to bloom in pastels ranging from white to purple. In Minnesota, hepatica can begin blooming anytime from early April into May — before the trees leaf out. Bees, early butterflies, beetles and flies pollinate the small flowers depending on how early they bloom. Fresh green leaves will grow up from beneath the flower stalks to remain until next spring.

Hepatica’s fuzzy flower stalks slowly unfurl to reveal the delicate flowers.

Hepatica leaves are three-lobed. The previous year’s leaves are often brownish-red or bronze and reminded earlier people of the human liver. (Hepatica is from the Greek word for liver.)

In it’s natural setting, hepatica often grows under oak trees — that’s where I first spotted it peeping out among tattered brown leaves one warm April day at our cabin. (I purchased the hepatica in my garden at a local nursery.) It is a woodland wildflower that prefers full spring sun that becomes dappled sun as the trees leaf out. Two species are native to Minnesota — round-lobed and sharp-lobed — and are very similar in appearance. It’s also very well-behaved, so a gardener needn’t worry about hepatica overtaking the garden!

This week in the yard, besides the blooming hepatica, bloodroot leaves unfurled and increased in size as seed pods swelled. Many tiny native bees, and a not-so-tiny queen two-spotted bumble bee, pollinated the spring flowers. A wave of hermit thrushes ate insects and seeds in the backyard most of the week before continuing north to their nesting grounds. 

As the bloodroot blossoms (Sanguinaria canadensis) wilt, the leaves unfold and the seed pods begin to swell.

A queen bumble bee (Bombus bimaculatus) hovers above glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa luciliae) blossoms.

A hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus), one of the most ethereal songsters I’ve heard, rests on its journey to northern Minnesota and Canada.

Nesting sites are a hot commodity locally, too: A female mallard sits on her nest completely hidden in our neighbor’s daylily garden. Robins nest in arbor vitae behind the garage and cardinals nest in a neighbor’s small evergreen shrub. Each day, the cardinal pair visits our garden where the male gently feeds his mate. In a few weeks, the begging calls of this year’s first fledglings will fill the air. I look forward to seeing their plump, downy bodies following their parents around the garden!

¹Spring ephemerals are perennial plants that appear quickly in early spring and die back until the next year, such as bloodroot, hepatica, trout lily and Virginia bluebells.