Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Sweet Violets
Nature Bulletin No. 417-A   May 1, 1971
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Of all our early wildflowers, the violets are probably best known and most universally loved. Their colorful little blooms, that peep out from low-growing bunches of foliage, have been an inspiration to poets since ancient times. Their name has become a synonym for modesty and shyness.

Violets are found throughout most of the world: in rich woodlands, prairies and meadows, marshy places, bogs, dry sandy plains, on high mountains, and even in the arctic and Antarctic regions, Usually, each kind prefers a particular sort of habitat but there are so many kinds, and so many varieties and hybrids of those kinds, that even a trained botanist has to scratch his head before he can positively identify some of them.

There are two general groups. By far the most common are the "stemless" violets which, like the Common Blue Violet, have a rosette of individual leaves and flowers on separate stalks rising from the root or from underground runners sent out by the root. Those in the other group have branching stems with the leaves placed alternately and flowers rising on thin stalks from the axils where the leaves join the stems. These flowers bear seeds. The stemless violets are peculiar: the showy flowers seldom make seeds. Instead, later in the season and near the base of the plant, they produce little short-stalked green flowers which have no petals, never open, and are self-fertilizing. They produce large numbers of tiny seeds that are scattered when the small three-parted pod pops open in late summer.

Almost all of the violets have flowers with a distinctive shape: two petals above; two, usually narrower, at the sides; and at the bottom a large trough-shaped petal with a short sac-like tube at the back where the fragrant nectar is secreted. Many kinds have clusters of hairs, called "beards", on the bottom and lateral petals. The upper and lateral petals usually have fine deeper-colored lines leading into the center of the flower: "nectar guides" for insects. The colors of violets range from white, yellow and pale lavender to deep blue or purple. Some have two or three colors.

The leaves on some kinds are round or heart-shaped; some are arrow- shaped; some are long and narrow; some are lobed; and the leaves of one which grows on our native prairies -- are so deeply cleft that it is called the Bird's-foot Violet. Some have downy or hairy stems and some are smooth, Some are very fragrant but some have scarcely any smell. There is a rare one, found at only one place in the forest preserves, that merits special mention: the Green Violet which, with its tall hairy stem, long tapering leaves, and queer little green flowers in the axils of those leaves, doesn't look like a violet at all.

We cannot describe, here, the dozen most common of the 25 kinds of violets that have been found in the Chicago region. We suggest that you obtain a copy of "Illinois Wild Flowers " published by the Illinois State Museum.

The most famous violet, and the oldest known garden flower of the British Isles, is the flower with friendly faces -- the Pansy. Its ancestor was the small-flowered Heartsease, a violet with three mixed colors -- blue, white and yellow. The ancestor of the deep blue, sweet-smelling violet grown in hot-houses for the corsages we give to our best gals, was the Sweet Violet of Europe.

"The violet of an unforgotten hour", "enshrines a soul within its blue".

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