The Hidden Flowers of Viola

Violas keep a secret hidden below their foliage. Sometimes they even bury it shallowly in the soil near their roots. I suppose it’s not a secret really, just something out of sight. There isn’t a reason to show it off, after all. Showy flowers are showy for the sole purpose of attracting pollinators. If pollinators are unnecessary, there is no reason for showy flowers, or to even show your flowers at all. That’s the story behind the cleistogamous flowers of violas. They are a secret only because unless you know to look for them, you would have no idea they were there at all.

Cleistogamy means closed marriage, and it describes a self-pollinating flower whose petals remain sealed shut. The opposite of cleistogamy is chasmogamy (open marriage). Most of the flowers we are familiar with are chasmogamous. They open and expose their sex parts in order to allow for cross-pollination (self-pollination can also occur in such flowers). Violas have chasmogamous flowers too. They are the familiar five-petaled flowers raised up on slender stalks above the green foliage. Cross-pollination occurs in these flowers, and seed-bearing fruits are the result. Perhaps as a way to ensure reproduction, violas also produce cleistogamous flowers, buried below their leaves.

an illustration of the cleistogamous flower of Viola sylvatica opened to reveal its sex parts — via wikimedia commons

Flowers are expensive things to make, especially when the goal is to attract pollinators. Colorful petals, nectar, nutritious pollen, and other features that help advertise to potential pollinators all require significant resources. All this effort is worth it when it results in the ample production of viable seeds, but what if it doesn’t? Having a method for self-pollination ensures that reproduction will proceed in the absence of pollinators or in the event that floral visitors don’t get the job done. A downside, of course, is that a seed produced via self-pollination is essentially a clone of the parent plant. There will be no mixing of genes with other individuals. This isn’t necessarily bad, at least in the short term, but it has its downsides. A good strategy is a mixture of both cross- and self-pollination – a strategy that violas employ.

The cleistogamous flowers of violas generally appear in the summer or fall, after the chasmogamous flowers have done their thing. The fruits they form split open when mature and deposit their seeds directly below the parent plant. Some are also carried away by ants and dispersed to new locations. Seeds produced in these hidden flowers are generally superior and more abundant compared to those produced by their showy counterparts. People who find violas to be a troublesome lawn weed – expanding far and wide to the exclusion of turfgrass – have these hidden flowers to blame.

That being said, there is a defense for violas. In the book The Living Landscape by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy, Tallamy writes: “Plants such as the common blue violet (Viola sororia), long dismissed by gardeners as a weed, can be reconstituted as desirable components of the herbaceous layer when their ecosystem functionality is re-evaluated. Violets are the sole larval food source for fritillary butterflies. Eliminating violets eliminates fritillaries, but finding ways to incorporate violets in garden design supports fritillaries.”

sweet violet (Viola odorata)

In my search for the cleistogamous flowers of viola, I dug up a sweet violet (Viola odorata). I was too late to catch it in bloom, but the product of its flowers – round, purple, fuzzy fruits – were revealed as I uprooted the plant. Some of the fruits were already opening, exposing shiny, light brown seeds with prominent, white elaiosomes, there to tempt ants into aiding in their dispersal. I may have missed getting to see what John Eastman calls “violet’s most important flowers,” but the product of these flowers was certainly worth the effort.

Fruits formed from the cleistogamous flowers of sweet violet (Viola odorata)

Up close and personal with the fruit of a cleistogamous flower

The seeds (elaiosomes included) produced by the cleistogamous flower of sweet violet (Viola odorata)

See Also:

Tea Time: Violet Leaf Tea

The genus Viola is large and widespread. Its flowers are easily recognizable and obviously popular. A significant number of Viola species, hybrids, and cultivars are commercially available and commonly planted in flower beds and container gardens. Certain species have even become weeds – vicious lawn invaders in some people’s opinion. Violets (or pansies in some cases) are also edible. Their leaves and/or flowers can be used in salads, drinks, and desserts. One way to use the leaves is to make tea, so that’s what I did.

I imagine you can make tea from any Viola species, but after some searching I found that two species frequently mentioned are Viola odorata and Viola sororia – two very similar looking plants, one from the Old World and the other from the New World.

sweet violet (Viola odorata)

Viola odorata – commonly known as sweet violet, wood violet, or English violet – is distributed across Europe and into Asia and has been widely introduced outside of its natural range. It has round, oval, or heart-shaped leaves with toothed margins that grow from the base of the plant, giving it a groundcover-type habit. Its flowers range from dark purple to white and are borne atop a single stem that curves downward at the top like a shepherd’s crook. It has no leafy, upright stems, and it spreads horizontally via stolons and rhizomes. The flowers are distinctly fragrant and have a long history of being used in perfumes.

One way to get a good whiff of these flowers is to try a trick described in the book The Reason for Flowers by Stephen Buchmann:

Go into a garden or any natural area and select one or more flowers you want to investigate…. Select a small, thoroughly washed and dried glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Place just one type of flower in the jar. Set your jar in a warm, sunny place such as a windowsill and come back in an hour or two. Carefully open the lid and sniff…. If you’ve selected a blossom with even the faintest scent, you should be able to smell it now, since the fragrance molecules have concentrated inside the jar.

sweet violet flowers inside glass jar

Viola sororia – native to eastern North America –  is also commonly planted outside of its native range. It’s clearly a favorite, having earned the distinction of state flower in four U.S. states. Known as the common blue violet (or myriad other commons names), it looks and acts a lot like sweet violet. I distinguish them by their flowers, which are wider and rounder (chunkier, perhaps) than sweet violet flowers, and their leaves, which are generally more heart-shaped. Feel free to correct me. If, like me, you’re having trouble identifying violets, keep in mind that Viola species are highly variable and notorious hybridizers, so don’t beat yourself up over it. It’s their fault, not yours.

common blue violet (Viola sororia)

Violets bloom when the air is cool and the days are short. They are among the earliest plants to flower after the new year and among the latest plants flowering as the year comes to a close. In his entry on violets in The Book of Forest and Thicket, John Eastman refers to these early bloomers as “this low, blue flame in the woods.” They are like “a pilot light that ignites the entire burst of resurrection we call spring.” I can’t really picture spring without them. I find their unique flowers so intriguing that I fixate on them whenever I see them. And once I learned that I could make a tea out of their leaves, I had to try it.

I used the leaves of Viola odorata (or what I, with my amateur skills, identified as V. odorata). I picked several of what looked to be young leaves and left them to dry in the sun for several days. Later, I chopped them up and brewed a tea according to the instructions found on this website, which suggests using one tablespoon of dried leaves in sixteen ounces of water. Apparently, a little goes a long way, and I probably could have used fewer leaves than I did.

dried, chopped up leaves of sweet violet (Viola odorata) for making tea

The tea has a nice green color and smells a bit like grass to me. It may even taste like grass. I found it fairly bitter. Sierra didn’t like it and called it musty. I enjoyed it, but would likely enjoy it more if I hadn’t made it quite so strong. The aforementioned website also recommends combining violet leaf with other things like mint, dandelion, clover, and/or chamomile. I imagine a combination of ingredients could be better than just violet leaf on its own. Another site warns that “some of the wild violets have an unpleasant soapy flavor,” so that’s something to keep in mind when selecting your leaves for tea and other things. Either way, violet leaf tea is an experience worth having.

See Also: Pine Needle Teas