Everyone knows how the lyric begins: "Roses are red, violets are blue …" This poetic reference could be directly applied to the western Montana blue violet, which occurs widely in many of our undisturbed shrub-grasslands and forests.
Blue violets span North America from the Pacific Northwest to the Atlantic Coast. In west-central Montana, there are about 10 different species of violet, colored white, yellow, purple or various shades of blue. Violets and pansies are in the same plant family.
The blue violet of our area is "viola adunca," named by J.E. Smith in 1817. Its petals may be tinged at their bases with white streaks. This violet and its varieties occur from valley floors at 3,000 feet up to sub-alpine meadows at timberline over 9,000 feet. If encountered without developed flowers, blue violets may be identified by their oval, spade-shaped or heart-shaped leaves.
Early spring brings the conspicuous showy violet flowers we all recognize, elevated above the leaves. However, these gorgeous flowers may not, strangely, be the ones importantly involved in the annual seed production of the plant. What happens is that later in midsummer a second set of inconspicuous flowers develops with no petals at all. These short-stemmed petal-less flowers, or rather unopened buds, exist out of sight, hidden in the litter layer or even beneath the soil. With these peculiar violet flowers, self-pollination takes place, yielding an abundance of seeds within fruit capsules. After fertilization, the maturing capsules work their way to the soil surface for seed dispersal.
Why do the blue violets have such showy flowers if they are not routinely involved in reproducing the species? Why the secret underground seed production? It seems like a waste of energy to produce conspicuous flowers that even yield insect nectar food. What is going on? Plant biologists believe that a fail-safe, long-term survival mechanism is at work. Self-pollination assures short-term success, maintaining the gene-base adaptations for the specific local habitat in which the plant is growing - a shady forest, sunlit meadow or wet streamside. Violet seedlings arising from self-pollination are better adapted to the habitat of their parents.
However, the long-term survival of violet species is enhanced by preserving the showy flowers, allowing the occasional cross-fertilization between different violet plants and leaving open the potential for new genetic combinations. The "new" violets can successfully establish in other habitats. This double sex life has probably been happening with blue violet populations for a long time, and may explain why we find them in so many different habitats.
Violet seeds are especially adapted to encourage dispersal by ants. A small, irregularly shaped outgrowth or knob of tissue on the side of the mature seed allows an ant to take a firm grip on the seed to carry it away from the parent plant, so the seedling appears at some distance. This relationship between ants and violets is a form of mutualism: Each would be worse off if the interaction did not happen. Some interesting complexity has evolved among our violets - there is a lot more to them than just their pretty faces.
Violet flowers are edible and palatable. People place them atop green salads to add brightness. But it is recommended that garden varieties be used rather than native ones. While the flowers are pretty safe for human consumption, the leaves are not. The leaves contain soap-like chemicals that can cause stomach distress if eaten in large amounts. Violet leaves were used by Native Americans as laxatives and emetics. If you intend to live off the land, stay away from violet leaves. They are pretty to look at, but pack a wallop if eaten as salad greens.
James Habeck is a retired professor of botany and a member of the Montana Native Plants Society. The group writes a weekly column for the Missoulian during the growing season.