Underused Native Plants: Common Blue Violets

Native plants have become very popular over the years.
Underused Native Plants: Common Blue Violets - Articles


Consider including violets in landscapes, or just leaving them where they are doing well. Photo: Kathleen Salisbury

There is a reliable palette of native plants common in the trade today from Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) to Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp) and Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) to Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis). But there are many more native plants out there just perfect for a wide array of landscape situations that seem to have missed the spotlight. Perhaps it is their name - Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia) anyone? Or the fact they are difficult to grow in cultivation--anyone have much luck propagating those elusive native orchids from seed? Or perhaps they have developed a reputation as a noxious weed, as in the case of today's feature. Whatever the reason, it is time to get these plants into the spotlight.

A plant to consider for inclusion into your landscape designs is the Common Blue Violet (Viola soraria). Blue Violet?! Do I mean the one you spend lots of time controlling as a weed in turf? Yes. That Common Blue Violet. But hear me out.

A frequent native plant question I get (in addition to "Will the deer eat that?") is from someone looking for a native groundcover. If you take a look into PA's natural areas you will notice our native groundcovers are few and far between. Sure Wintergreen and Partridgeberry are options, as is moss and princess pine if the situation is just right. But violets, they will work in many landscape conditions.

Here we have a highly deer resistant, perennial, native groundcover that flowers purple (or pink or polka-dotted) in the spring. It will take full sun and clay soils (I know this from personal experience!) as well as moist shady locations. For those wanting something a little different, some native violet species even have silver leaves (Viola walteri 'Silver Gem') Not only are violets edible for us but they are also a plant with high wildlife value, after all, why are we planting natives anyway if not for the value to wildlife? Viola soraria is the larval host plant for the Great Spangled Fritillary but they are not the only insect that finds them delicious.

Violets are notorious for spreading everywhere when they are happy, which may be a good characteristic for a groundcover. Violets have developed numerous ways to spread. Violets spread by underground rhizomes and may form vegetative colonies. They also spread by seed. Flowers near the soil surface that never really open, called cleistogamous or non-opening, self-pollinating, shoot seeds out to establish a new colony away from the parent. Finally, like Trillium and Trout Lily, violets also use seed dispersal by ants (myrmecochory). In addition to being aerodynamic, violet seeds have elaiosomes attached to them which are fatty deposits attractive to ants for food. The ant finds a seed, eats the nutritious coating then buries the seed. No wonder violets do so well in landscapes.

The ants may have to fend off Wild Turkeys, Bobwhites, Mourning Doves and Mice for the delicious seeds. The caterpillars of the fritillary may have to compete with rabbits for the tasty heart-shaped leaves.

This spring flowering, perennial, deer-resistant ground cover that does well in many difficult landscape situations (including something to grow under those pesky Black Walnuts) and supports a wide variety of native wildlife seems like a good choice for Pennsylvania gardens. And yes, PA nurseries sell Common Blue Violets, you can find them in nurseries around the state. So consider including violets in landscapes, or just leaving them where they are doing well. This low-maintenance native groundcover is a benefit to landscapes and ecosystems alike.