~ Plant Highlight ~
There are over 20 different species of violets native to Kentucky and the surrounding states. Probably the most common of these species is the common blue violet (Viola sororia). The common blue violet grows in a wide range of habitats including meadows, parks, open woods, and yards. It has heart-shaped leaves and blue to purple flowers with a white throat. Like other violets, the common blue violet blooms most prolifically in the spring, but may also have a few blooms in the fall.
The common blue violet has two different methods of pollination. The first one utilizes the pretty flowers that we are all so familiar with and allows for normal insect pollination. Interestingly, there is a species of mining bee, Andrena violae, that only forages on violets. However, not as many different species of insects visit violet flowers as visit some other types of flowers.
The second method of pollination takes into account the fact that violets bloom so early in the season. Cool or wet early spring weather may limit how many insect pollinators are flying when the violets are in bloom. If you look closely at a clump of violets, you’ll notice a few flower buds that never seem to open and are located below the open blooms. These flower buds are able to self-fertilize and don’t need to open to produce viable seed.
Fertilized common blue violet flowers produce seeds which are flung out from the ripened seedpod when it opens. This is why violets seem to spread so rapidly and easily in yards. Many violet seeds also have a small protrusion that is attractive to ants. The ants, therefore, also help to move violet seeds into new parts of a yard or open area.
In addition to producing the only flowers that A. violae visits, violets are also an important host plant for the fritillary butterflies. The caterpillars of some of the fritillary butterflies, like that of the great spangled fritillary butterfly, can only eat violet foliage. The caterpillars of some of the other fritillary butterflies can eat a few other plants in addition to violets; however, violets are still their preferred foliage. As you can see, these cheery blue flowers play an important, but often overlooked, role in supporting our native pollinators.
Shannon Trimboli is a beekeeper, farmer, wildlife biologist, and author. She owns Grassy Roads Farm and Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting. Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting specializes in plants and habitat consulting services for honey bees, native pollinators, and wildlife conservation. In 2018, her first book, Plants Honey Bees Use in the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, was published. Shannon also writes a weekly blog called Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife. The blog features profiles of pollinators and wildlife, tips for attracting pollinators and wildlife, highlights of different plants for pollinators and wildlife, and life on the farm and nursery. You can sign up to have her blog emailed to you.