Vol. 12 Issue 1, Spring 2007
By Nicole Hamilton
As winter turns to spring, some of the first flowers we see are those of the tiny violets. These wildflowers grow primarily in moist woods, meadows and wetlands. By mid-April the woods, especially near streams and other wet areas, can be carpeted with violets. It’s such a beautiful sight!
Violets bloom from approximately March through May, but they often bloom again in the fall when the same amount of available daylight triggers the flowering hormones.
When violets flower, they actually produce two different types of flowers. One type is the pretty blue/purple (and in some cases yellow or white) four-petal flower with which we are familiar. These flowers are pollinated primarily by small bees, but butterflies and moths are also pollinators. The other type of flower is one that grows close to the ground, tight near the roots, and never opens. Instead, it is self-pollinated and produces seeds made only from the parent’s genetics.
The reason for these two types of flowers seems to be for survival. Violets are extremely sensitive to the habitat in which they grow and in fact are particular to the specific microhabitats in which they originated. As violets grow and spread, they form colonies that are made up mostly of plants that grew solely from the parent. Research has shown that even though they may come from the same species of violet, a plant from one colony may not be able to grow in the microhabitat of another colony.
In the pollination process, cross-fertilized seeds resulting from the pollination by bees and self-fertilized seeds are dispersed by the flower which shoots the seeds up to 3 – 4 feet away. The self-fertilized seeds have a greater likelihood of surviving because the parent already thrives in that habitat. With the cross-fertilized seeds, only the best ones most suited to the microhabitat survive, thereby carrying forth only the strongest genetics.
Once the seeds have been dispersed by the flowers, they may be collected by ants that are attracted to the oil on the seeds. The ants take them back to their nests where they are gnawed on and then discarded. The seeds that have been gnawed on by ants have a much higher success rate for germinating than those that are not gnawed.
In addition to ants, other species use parts of the violets for food. Mice, mourning doves and dark-eyed juncos eat the seeds, wild turkeys eat the tender rhizomes, and rabbits eat the leaves. Caterpillars of the Variegated, Great Spangled and Meadow Fritillary Butterflies use violets as their host plants as they eat the leaves and grow into beautiful butterflies.