Photo and article by Joan Allen for UConn Extension
The common blue violet (Viola sororia), also known as common meadow violet, purple violet, woolly blue violet, or wood violet, is a native perennial plant found throughout eastern North America. Some references give woolly blue violet (a variety with fuzzy leaves) its own species name but the most common status seems to be a single species with high variability. This little spring wildflower blooms from April through June and occurs naturally in moist meadows, woodland edges and along roads. It prefers moist, somewhat shady sites but once established it can thrive in dry and less favorable conditions and is often a problematic weed in turfgrass and landscapes.
At 3-8 inches tall, it is low growing with leaves and flowers on petioles originating from the root, not from a stem. Reproduction is via rhizomes and seed, both allowing spread and persistence in lawns and gardens. The most prevalent flower color is purple to blue but occasionally flowers may be pale purple, gray or white.
Flowers consist of five petals with two upper, two lateral and one lower petal. The lower petal has striking stripes that lead from its edge to the center of the flower and this design helps guide pollinators to the nectar within. The color and scent of the flowers aid in attracting pollinators as well. Violets flower early in the season when pollinator activity may not be reliable so they produce a second type, a cleistogamous flower that appears lower to the ground and often later in the season. These are self-pollinating.
Historically, violets have been used for both food and medicine. Medicinal uses have included treatment of the common cold, headache, cough, sore throat and constipation. Nutritionally, a half cup of violet leaves are reported to contain as much vitamin C as three oranges. Both flowers and leaves are edible. Some violet species have a sweeter flavor and a stronger aroma that make them a nice garnish or addition to sweet dishes while others have a mild pea-like flavor and blend well in savory recipes. Some recipes for using violets are available on the American Violet Society website, including this one for crystallized viola.
- Never use plants for food unless you are 100% certain that you’ve identified the plant correctly.
- African violets are NOT related to these plants and are NOT edible.
- Do not use plants that may have been treated with any kind of chemicals/pesticides including those in lawns, roadsides, etc. if history of the site is unknown.
There is a beautiful ‘language of flowers’ in which a particular flower can carry a special meaning or message. The message associated with a particular flower, which may be specific to color, can vary by region or reference. In North America (according to one reference), the violet means modesty and blue violets in particular can mean watchfulness or faithfulness or may send the message ‘I’ll always be true”. More on the language of flowers and a list of many for North America can be found here.
So far, I’ve just mentioned in passing the fact that perennial violets can become a weed problem in turfgrass and landscapes. If you’re interested in what to do about this plant as a weed, there is great information here from Purdue University.