Bird's-foot violet is an erect native perennial forb, growing only 4 to 6 inches tall, without stems as the leaves grow directly from the root as does the flowering stem which is referred to as a 'scape'.
The leaves are pinnately-divided, first into 3 main sections with each section divided into 3 to 5 toothed lobes although the lobes may be simply linear with rounded tips; the leaflets are smaller toward the base of the leaf, broader near the tip and the entire leaf on a slender stalk rising directly from the root. Outer leaves have shorter stalks than the inner leaves. Color is a medium green, without hair on either surface. Early spring leaves and later fall leaves will be smaller and not so prominently divided.
The inflorescence is a single flower atop a 3 to 6 inch high scape, that is smooth and greenish to purple in color. The scape bends downward near the flowerhead.
Flowers: Each flower 3/4 to 1-1/2 inches wide with a light purple to blue corolla of 5 petals that spread outward, each petal rounded or obtusely pointed at the tip. The upper petals may be more narrow than the lower petals and in some plants the two upper petals can be a much darker shade of color. That lower petal also has a white patch in the throat, lined with dark purple lines that are nectar guides for insects. This petal is also the longest and has a spur on the back. Only long-tongued insects can reach the nectar. The 5 stamens (unlike most violets) protrude from the corolla throat and form a distinct orange-yellow center to the flower. Flowers are beardless - that is no hair in the corolla throat - the only Violet like this. The outer calyx has five green linear pointed sepals, the upper one reflexes. Some violets have self-fertilizing flowers (referred to as 'cleistogamous' flowers, which lack petals) in addition to the normal flowers requiring pollination - Bird's-foot does not.
Seed: The fruit is a green smooth capsule containing copper colored seeds are ejected when ripe. The seeds in the capsule are small, weighing 26,000 to the ounce. For germination seeds need first, 60 days of cold stratification and when planted need light, so should not be covered. Best to sow outside in the Autumn and let nature do the work.
Varieties: While some references show a number of varieties, Flora of North America (Ref.#W7) only allows two: Var. pedata, where the leaf blades are 7 to 9 lobes, lanceolate or linear in shape, sometimes with curved or delta shape appendages near the tip. The other is var. ranunculifolia where the leaf blade is usually 3 to 5 lobed and the lobes are deltate or ovate in shape. Var. pedata is native to Minnesota.
Habitat: Bird's-foot Violet is a plant of sun and dry soils. It grows in prairies, and other areas of sandy, gravely soil from fibrous roots attached to a thick rhizome. Partial sun is tolerated, but excess moisture is not. Propagation is usually by seed- the plant does not produce stolons. Plants do not do well in close quarters with other species.
Names: The genus Viola is the Latin name for various sweet-scented flowers. The species, pedata, means 'like a bird's foot', which is the common name due to the shape of the leaf sections resembling the spread claws of a bird's foot. The author name for the plant classification - 'L.' refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy.
Comparisons: A very close relative is the Prairie or Larkspur Violet, V. pedatifida, where the leaves look very similar but the flower has a white patch on the throat of all the petals, the three lower petals have beards obscuring the orange-yellow stamen group, flowers are not fragrant, and the plant has cleistogamous flowers.
Above: Beardless Bird's-foot Violet flower with the distinctive orange stamen cone above the white throat patch. Photo ©Merle R. Black, University of Wisconsin. Drawing from Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
Below: 1st photo - Some plants of V. pedata have the two upper petals a much darker shade of violet (photo ©Corey Raimond, University of Wisconsin, Steven's Point). The second photo shows the Prairie or Larkspur Violet, V. pedatifida, where all the petals have a white throat and the 3 lower petals are bearded (photo ©Christopher Noll, University of Wisconsin).
Below: Typical leaf lobes.
Bird's-foot Violet is not indigenous to the Garden but has been planted numerous times in the early years of the Garden. Eloise brought in the first plant from the "Government Reservation" at Fort Snelling in 1907. She planted more in 1908, '10, '12, '15, '16, '17 and '20. Martha Crone planted it in 1933, '34, '37, '38 and '45. Martha Crone listed it on her 1951 census but it has not appeared on later ones.
Bird's-foot Violet is one of 18 native violets found in the Minnesota but not widespread, known today in only 18 counties, primarily in the SE quadrant of the state up through the north metro area. In North America the species is found in the eastern half of the U.S. except for Florida and Vermont and in Canada it is known in Ontario. It is considered 'threatened' in New Hampshire, New York and Ohio.
Eloise Butler wrote extensively about violets - Read her notes. Edna Ferber wrote: "Big doesn't necessarily mean better. Sunflowers aren't better than violets."
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"