Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Violets
Nature Bulletin No. 225-A   April 9, 1966
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Of all our spring wildflowers, the best known and loved are the violets -- the Johnny-Jump-Up of the nursery rhyme -- symbol of shyness and modesty, and the state flower of Illinois, Wisconsin, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

There are several hundred species, varieties and natural hybrids. Most of these occur in northern climates, some very far north, but they are also found in South America, Africa and Australia. In the tropics some become shrubs or even small trees. They grow in woodlands, meadows, marshes, prairies and mountains. Our Chicago region is unusually rich in violets, with 25 recognized species. Purple, blue, yellow and white are the most common colors but some, have two or more colors on each flower.

Typically, the flowers peep from a dense mass of foliage but there are two main groups. In one, each leaf and each flower stalk rises individually from a rootstock or from underground runners. In the other, there are leafy stems with flowers rising from the crotches of the alternate leaves. The violet has five petals arranged in a special way to give the flower its distinctive shape. There is a broad upper pair, a narrower lateral pair, and a broad lower petal -- the largest -- which extends backward to form a sac or spur containing the nectar. This lower petal serves as a landing place for the bees and butterflies which thrust their tongues through a little door, guarded by the 5 stamens and the pistil, to get at the nectar. Different kinds of violets are cross- pollinated so readily by insects that they hybridize and are difficult to identify.

However, these showy flowers do not regularly bear seed. Violets are remarkable in that they also produce, later and near the base of the plant, very small flowers without petals. These do not open, are self- pollinated, and each is followed by a three-armed pod. As these ripen, they split and shoot out their tiny brown seeds -- a fact which causes the country folk in England to believe that "violets breed fleas..

The Birdfoot violet found on prairies, dry fields and hillsides, is the most striking of our local species. In some, all the large showy petals are lilac-purple with conspicuous orange stamens in the center; in others the two upper petals are dark violet. The leaves are deeply cut into narrow segments resembling the toes of a bird. The Arrow-leafed Violet, with intensely blue flowers, the Palmata, and Lance-leafed Violet, also have leaves distinctly different from the heart-shaped, finely-toothed leaves of most native kinds. We have two common kinds of yellow violets and three common kinds of white violets, one of which has fragrant flowers. Most violets, however, have little or no fragrance, although the Canada violet is sweet-scented; and the Sweet- scented English Violet, with either blue or white flowers, has escaped from cultivation and thrives untended in many localities.

The Pansy, with flowers like cheerful little faces, was developed from a small variegated European violet called the Wild Pansy or Heartsease. In some places, small pansies like this ancestor may be found growing wild.

The African Violet, in several colors, cannot survive our winter outdoors.

The Egyptians used violets as pot herbs. In France and Italy the shoots are put in salads. Our Indians used them to thicken soup. In pioneer days the candied flowers were choice sweets because of their color and delicate flavor.

"Roses are red, violets blue; sugar' s sweet and so are you."

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