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By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

Let us now consider the lowly, lovely violet. One of the earlier spring flowers to appear, it is often maligned as a weed, especially when it pops up in lawns. But did you know that these perennials are native to the U.S., and play a valuable role in our local ecosystems?

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There are over 200 violet (Viola) species native to North America, and 500 around the world. Flowers can be blue, white, light or dark purple, yellow, or combinations of those colors. Violets hybridize freely among themselves, and plant breeders have created cultivars, too.

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Although low growers at only three to seven inches tall, don’t let their size and daintiness fool you: There’s nothing shrinking about violets. From their waxy, herbicide-resistant leaves to their ability to spread by both seed and rhizomes, violets have evolved to be tough, resilient survivors. How tough? How many plants do you know that are hardy in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 1 to 10?

All sorts of wildlife depend on them. Because they bloom before many other flowers, mason bees and sweat bees depend on the nectar when these pollinators emerge in spring. Turkeys, bobwhites, grouse, mourning doves, and a number of songbirds eat violet seeds, rhizomes and foliage, as do mice, voles, and rabbits. Violets are the host plants for the caterpillars of a number of fritillary butterfly species, which eat the leaves, and butterflies feed on the nectar.

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Whether you are a violet lover or hater can depend on how much lawn you have and how relaxed a gardener you are when plants do their own thing. On the plus side, violets are deer resistant and will grow under black walnut trees. A happy violet will spread without any help from you, creating a low-maintenance groundcover. They are a good alternative in shadier places where turfgrass won’t grow.

The flowers of some species are fragrant, and though tiny, the flowers are pretty when cut and added to bouquets, or by themselves in a tiny vase. The leaves and flowers are edible: The leaves are a good source of vitamin C and the flowers can be candied or made into jelly.

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Violets prefer moist soil and partial shade, but some, like the common blue violet (Viola soraria) can handle full sun. They have no notable problems with insects or diseases.

On the minus side, a happy violet will spread enthusiastically, both via seed and underground rhizomes. They can be vigorous growers, crowding out other plants. In some states, including North Carolina, violets are considered aggressive to the point where they’ve been banned in commerce.

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The violet’s ability to survive and thrive is helped by an evolutionary trick: Some of the flower buds closest to the ground never open. Instead, they self-pollinate, and in late summer and early fall will shoot out seeds away from the original plant to help establish other colonies. Their success in spreading is also helped along by ants and other insects that eat the nutritious coating on the seed. They then bury the seed, which later germinates.

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By Delilah Onofrey, Suntory Flowers
Photos courtesy of Suntory Flowers

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