Vol. 15 Issue 1, Spring 2010
By Kerry Bzdyk
One of the great joys of a walk or hike in Loudoun County in the spring is the discovery of colorful wildflowers along the path. The uniqueness and beauty of the Birdfoot Violet (Viola pedata) makes this little wildflower a welcome find. The Latin word pedata means “foot like” and refers to the shape of the leaves.
The Birdfoot Violet is a low growing perennial with short rhizomes that grows in most of the eastern half of the United States and in the Piedmont area of Virginia, including here in Loudoun County. It blooms throughout the spring and is most easily recognized by its large, flat-faced flowers, prominent orange stamens, and very finely cut leaves that resemble bird feet.
The beautiful flowers are usually one of two types: a mono-color form with lavender petals, with the upper two petals sometimes darker; and the bi-color form with the upper two petals a dark purple and the lower three petals a much lighter purple or lavender. The rhizomes spread underground to form colonies of plants, adding to their beauty. The leaves grow on 4- to 6-inch stems and are smooth and lobed into three parts. Each of these lobes is further dissected into three more parts. The flowers are 1¼ to 1¾ inches across and bloom on long stalks or peduncles. This violet will grow in a variety of conditions but prefers well-drained soil in partial shade. It will even grow in the shade of black walnut trees.
Along with providing us humans with something beautiful to see, this violet also provides wildlife with food. Bees visit to feed on the nectar (and to pollinate), and it is also a fine butterfly host plant. The Great Spangled Fritillary will lay its eggs on the stems of the Birdfoot Violet, and the newly hatched caterpillars will start eating the leaves when they hatch.
The fruit is a small green capsule about 9mm across. And many ground-feeding birds, including Northern Bob White, Mourning Dove, Dark-eyed Junco, and even the wild Turkey eat its seeds. The white-footed mouse will also feed on the seeds, and rabbits will eat the leaves.
There are over 200 species of violets distributed throughout the world, and their medicinal and culinary uses can be traced back to Roman times when they were used for making wine, syrups and vinegars. The leaves contain vitamins C and A and salicylic acid (like aspirin). They also have expectorant properties and have been used for respiratory disorders. Leaves are edible and can be added to salads and soups (as a thickener) and cooked as a leafy green. The flowers can be candied and used as a decoration or frozen in cubes to dress up summer drinks. They are sweet and slightly spicy.
Useful, beautiful, and beneficial to wildlife, the Birdfoot Violet is a welcome addition to our wild landscape in Loudoun County.
Mabey, Richard. The New Age Herbalist, Simon and Schuster, 1988.
Peterson, Lee Allen.Edible Wild Plants, Mifflin, 1977.