Common Violet


Flower Description:
Lavender, yellow, white bilaterally or radially symmetrical flowers. Five sepals and petals. One separate lower petal is often larger and backward projecting like a spur.

Berries or explosively opening capsule.

Leaf Description:
Simple, green leaves, sometimes deeply lobed.

Common Names:

Johnny Jumpups, Meadow Violets

Established Plant Colonies in Norway Valley


Family: Violet (Violaceae)
Height: To 16” (40 cm)
Flowering: March – June
Habitat: Wet, Cool, Shady, Rich Deciduou Woods
Cycle: Perennial


Violets all belong to the genus Viola of the Violaceae family. The word violet is derived from the Latin word viola, which means violet. This has not stopped others from inventing other creative etymologies for the name violet. Viola for instance may be Greek taken from the root word Io or Ione. In Greek mythology, Io was one of Zeus’ lovers whose identity was betrayed to Hera. According to legend, Hera became jealous of Io and punished her by turning her into a white calf. Hera provided the sweet, white violets for Io to graze upon in her transformed state. This connection between the myth and the name of the flowers seems weak and improbable; the Latin derivation is more easily understood.

In the United States there are more than 100 species of common spring violets. Violets are flowers with five petals: two pairs of lateral petals and one often with veins of another color. The leaves of violets are usually oval or heart-shaped, which may be lobed. Due to their almost universally recognized shape, these wildflowers are easy to identify. Because they hybridize freely, however, violets are often difficult to classify. Below are some species of violets native to Minnesota and Saint Olaf College.

Common Violets

Canada Violet (V. canadensis): One of the few stalked violets, which also emits a fragrance. Generally white with a yellow center. This type of violet arises from stolons that run above ground. Canadensis means “of Canada”, but it is unclear what the species name is referencing (site of origin, where the flower is commonly found, etc.).
Common Blue Violet (V. sororia): Also called the Butterfly Violet for unknown reasons (possibly refers to flower shape and petal arrangement). Contrary to its name, this type of violet may be any shade of blue ranging to purple and white16. These flowers are low growing. The Common Blue Violet can be distinguished from others by its bottom petal, which is not spurred.
Downy Yellow Violet (V. pubescens): Another stalked violet that originates from a leaf attachment rather than a single basal flower stalk arrangement of many other violet species. This flower is typically yellow with purple veins. Though there may be several flowers per plant, each individual flower grows on its own stalk. The heart-shaped leaves and stalk are covered with small hairs that give rise to the common name “Downy.”


Violets are ideally designed to attract insect pollinators, which aid in fertilization and reproduction. The brightly colored petals, ultraviolet veining, and occasional scent of the flowers attract many flying insects, usually bees. Winged insects like bees can easily land on the lower, spurred petal which acts as a landing strip. The colored veins of the flowers direct the insect to the floral center, which is where the nectar is located. Some species of violets have hairs near the nectar opening which gives the insects something to grab on to as it climbs inside. The nectar location requires the insect to burrow deep inside the flower, which jars loose the pollen of the flower overhead. The sticky nectar acts as glue for the pollen, which ensures that it is not lost as the insect travels to another flower thereby pollinating the violets.

Like other spring wildflowers, violets have certain adaptations to guarantee reproductive success even in difficult conditions. Many violet species are responsive to light and weather. At night, in cloudy or rainy weather, the flowers will close and turn toward the ground. This protects the pollen from being washed away. This adaptation also prevents the nectar from becoming diluted in the rain. Some species of violets have other means of ensuring reproduction. Cleistogamous or self-fertilizing flowers are violets that do not bloom. They will appear as buds, pods, or defective flowers found lower on the plant. Though these ‘flowers’ remain permanently closed, they contain all the necessary parts to produce viable seeds. Not all species of violets rely on cleistogamous flowers, only those that develop early in the season when insect pollination may be difficult.

The seeds of some species of violets are spread through an explosively opening capsule. Violets like the Downy Yellow produce a beak-shaped seed pod. As the pod dries it bursts open, catapulting the seeds in all directions. This process increases the range of the violets with this form of seed capsule. The seeds of violets are further spread by myrmechochory or ant farming. This is a form of symbiosis between ants and wildflowers. The seeds produced by violets have an oily, sugar-rich appendage called an elaiosome that is coveted by ants. They carry the seeds to their nests where they eat the elaiosome and discard the rest of the seed, which they cannot penetrate. The seed then develops under the protection of the ant nest in a medium made rich by ant waste.

Other Uses

Most violets are edible and have certain medicinal properties which have increased their practical value. Violets contain a certain amount of salicylic acid, which is a chief ingredient in aspirin. Certain forms of violets therefore were used as pain relievers, among many other uses up to and including cancer treatment. The leaves of violets are rich in vitamins A and C. They have been used in the past and today in salads, as soup thickeners, tea, and, when prepared properly, as candy.