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Spring Issue






Versatile Violets

Versatile Violets

By Shirley Froelich
(With some insights from Johnny Caryopsis.)
(Click thumbnail images for more pictures.)

What do the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Napoleon Bonaparte have in common? They all had a great love of violets. And they weren't the only ones. Herbalists used violets extensively from the sixteenth century on to treat many ailments. Butterflies like them too. Violets are the only food plants for the beautiful orange and black Fritillary butterflies. I had quite a few Fritillary butterflies in my garden last summer. Our prairie violets are popular with my customers too. Is it their small size that endears them to gardeners or their adaptability to sun or shade? Maybe it is because their flowers appear in May when many other plants are just starting to show a few green sprouts. Whatever the reason, violets are a great plant for prairie gardens.

The word violet comes from the Latin name for these plants, "viola". No surprises there. (JC)


Violets generally begin blooming in May and continue into June. Many species have darker veins on the flowers that act as arrows pointing the way for pollinating insects to a nectar laden spur at the rear of the bottom petal. They have two kinds of flowers: early spring flowers which are showy and cross fertilized, and summer flowers which remain closed and self fertilize (cleistogamous). Seed is produced by both types of flowers in dry, three-part capsules which pop open with some force to scatter the seed. If you wish to collect seed you must do so before the capsules pop. The seed will be ripe when the capsules are pointing up in the air or straight our rather than hanging down.

There are 27 different kinds of violets in Manitoba (17 species, plus an additional 10 distinct subvarieties), according to the Manitoba Conservation Data Centre. (JC).


Prairie Originals raises five varieties of violets native to Manitoba. Here's some more about them.

Early Blue Violet (Viola adunca)
Smallest of the group. It grows only 5-10 cm tall (2-4"). One of these violets simply appeared in my flower bed one year, courtesy of the neighborhood birds I think. I have had several people tell me that they have many of these violets growing in their sparse and shady lawns. Perhaps some of these plants were started courtesy of the birds too. The leaves on this violet are ovate and grow along the stems. Under sunny conditions the whole plant is often only 12 cm across (5"), however in shadier conditions it can grow to 30 cm across (12"). The plant will self-seed prolifically in moist, bare soil but is much more restrained in sunny, drier conditions.
Northern Bog Violet (Viola nephrophylla)
This plant has no stems and all the leaves are basal, arising from the crown. It is mound shaped and 10-20 cm high (4-8"). Early leaves are round and later ones are broadly ovate. Masses of blue/purple flowers are produced every spring. This species also self-seeds in moist soil.
Crowfoot Violet (Viola pedatifida)
Another blue/purple violet of the prairies. It generally starts blooming in early June, a few weeks later than the first two species. The plants do not produce as many flowers as the Northern Bog Violet however the flowers are larger. The deeply indented "crowfoot" shaped leaves give the plant its name. The leaves are all basal. Because of their leaf shape they are rarely noticed in the grass until the flowers appear. This variety also spreads somewhat by self-seeding.
Downy Yellow Violet (Viola pubescens)
A good plant for shady, moist growing conditions. It grows 15-30 cm high (6-12"). The leaves are about 6 cm across (2.5") and broadly ovate with heart shaped bases. The bright yellow flowers grow on stalks from axils of stem leaves.
Western Canada Violet (Viola rugulosa)
The tallest of the group, growing 30-60 cm (1-2 feet). This common white violet of woodlands across Western Canada is often called Wood Violet. The large, white flowers have pink to purplish veins near the center. The heart shaped leaves on long stalks are around 7.5 cm (3") wide. This violets spreads rapidly by slender, numerous white roots to form a dense mat.

Some other violets to have a look at:

Kidney-leaved Violet (Viola renifolia) | Long-spurred Violet (Viola selkirkii)


Downy Yellow Violet is found in the eastern Parklands and southeastern Boreal forest of Manitoba. All the other violets mentioned above grow across Western Canada and into the midwestern United States with some having a much wider range.

For all you taxonomists out there, here's the classification of violets:



Early Blue and Crowfoot Violets prefer medium to moist soil and full sun to part shade. Crowfoot Violets may be short-lived if grown in deep shade and rich soil. Northern Bog Violet does best with moist to wet soil in full sun to part shade. Downy Yellow and Western Canada Violets are woodland species preferring shade with moist, rich soil. Any of the three blue/purple species can be planted in groups in flower beds or small spaces or mixed with other wildflowers and grasses to create a prairie meadow. The two woodland species can be used to naturalize a wooded or shaded area. Downy Yellow Violet can also be planted in groups in shady flower beds since it does not spread. You can set plants out in the garden in spring after the danger of frost is past or in summer. If growing your own plants from seed indoors they need to be stratified for six weeks. Then, a cool location with temperatures of 10-15 degrees C (50-60 degrees F) is needed to give the best germination for Early Blue and Northern Bog Violets. Crowfoot and Downy Yellow Violets are more tricky. They seem to prefer cooler germination temperatures and they also have a slower growth rate after germination occurs. I had good success with trays outside in early May when it was colder than normal. Or it may have been the result of the cool - warm - cool treatment that they received, I'm not sure. If seedling doesn't work you can always transplant any seedlings that have sprung up in the garden in either spring or fall.

Violets are so versatile they can enhance any garden, sunny or shady, wet or dry. Who can resist a plant that starts blooming when all the rest are just starting to grow?

Shirley Froehlich runs Prairie Originals, one of Manitoba's native wildflower nurseries. She offers a wide range of plants for sale, including native prairie wildflowers and grasses, as well as some species from forest and wetland settings.

Prairie Originals
27 Bunn's Rd, East Selkirk
Prairie Originals Website

Mailing Address:
Box 25, Grp. 310, RR3
Selkirk MB, R1A 3A6

Ph: (204) 785-9799 or Toll Free: 1-866-296-0928

Thanks for learning about Violets! Bye for now!

Here's some more wildflower articles in NatureNorth you might enjoy:

Pussy Willows | Our Prairie Crocus | Blue-eyed Grass | Old Man's Whiskers

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