Prairie violet is an erect native perennial forb, growing only 3 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, (lobed) with the divisions very deeply cleft, with larger divisions toothed (appearing like small lobes). Leaves are basal, forming a rosette shape, rising like a fan on short stalks. 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. Scapes rise directly from the rootstock and may be multiple.
The flowers of the Violet family are are two types. Those that form an open flower are called "chasmogamous" (open marriage) and those that never open are called "cleistogamous" (closed marriage). Both types are bisexual (perfect) and set seed but at different times.
Each chasmogamous flower is 3/4 to 1-1/4 inches wide with a pale violet to deep blue corolla of 5 petals that spread outward, each petal rounded or obtusely pointed at the tip. The upper petals may be more elongated than the lower petal. All the petals often have white splotches in the throat area and the lower petal also has that white patch in the throat lined with dark purple lines that are nectar guides for insects. The three lower petals are bearded (hairs in the throat area) The 5 stamens are obscured by the bearding. They have very short and thin filaments. Each stamen has a dorsal appendage and the five appendages cohere tightly to form a hollow cone around the central section of the single style which rises from 3 sectioned ovary. The outer calyx has five green linear pointed sepals. Flowers are not fragrant and may not produce a seed capsule.
The cleistogamous flowers are not produced until after the chasmogamous flowers have matured. They are smaller and appear on separate stems. These form an erect seed capsule, usually close to the ground. In most violets the cleistogamous flowers produce the abundance of seed.
Seed: The fruit is a brown seed capsule containing numerous seeds that are ejected when ripe. The seeds in the capsule are small, weighing 28,000 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.
Habitat: Prairie Violet is a plant of sun and well drained soils. It grows in prairies, and other mesic areas from fibrous roots and a thick rhizome. Partial sun is tolerated, particularly in late summer; extreme dryness is not tolerated. Propagation is usually by seed- which requires 60 days of cold stratification. Plants may not do well in close quarters with other species. A second bloom in September can occur.
Names: Per Flora of North America V. pedatifida is considered the main species of Prairie Violet, with the synonym V. palmata var. pedatifida considered subsidiary to that name. Some authorities continue to list V. palmata var. pedatifida, as the species found in Minnesota, but the U of M Herbarium on their 2018 checklist follows the Flora. The genus Viola is the Latin name for various sweet-scented flowers. The older species name palmata, means 'palmate' like a stretched out hand. The name, pedatifida, means 'cut like a bird's foot', which reflects some of the common names due to the shape of the leaf sections resembling the spread claws of a bird's foot. The author names for the plant classification are: ‘G.Don’ refers to George Don (1798-1856) Scottish botanist who collected specimens in Brazil, the West Indies and Sierra Leone. His main publication was the 4 volume A General System of Gardening and Botany. Additional work was added by ‘Cronquist’ who was Arthur Cronquist (1919-1992) American botanist, specialist on composites, whose major work was on development of the “Cronquist System”, a taxonomic system for flowering plants, now widely adopted.
Comparisons: A very close relative is the Bird's-foot violet, V. pedata, where the leaves look very similar but the flower is not as wide, has a white patch only in the throat of the lower petal, all petals are beardless, exposing an orange-yellow stamen group, flowers are usually fragrant, and the plant does not have cleistogamous flowers.
Above: Prairie Violet flower with white in the throat, 3 lower petals bearded, and violet nectar guide lines on the lower petal. Photo ©Merle R. Black, Wisconsin Flora. Drawing demonstrating the fan-shaped arrangement of leaves 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: Typical leaf structure of V. pedatifida. Photo ©Merle R. Black, Wisconsin Flora. The second photo shows one of the few remaining plants at Eloise Butler with the flower just opening. Note the arch in stem behind the flower.
Below: 1st photo - Comparison of the bearded flower of Prairie Violet, V. pedatifida (photo ©Christopher Noll, Wisconsin Flora) with (2nd photo) that of the Bird's-foot Violet, V. pedata (photo ©Mark Mittelstadt, Wisconsin Flora).
Below: Former Curator Martha Crone maintained a large bed of Prairie Bird's-foot Violets. Following her tenure, Ken Avery continued to maintain it for some years. Eventually the bed died out and only a remnant of plants remain today. Photo from a Kodachrome taken by Martha Crone on June 2, 1950.
Prairie 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 Minnehaha Park (Minneapolis) in 1910. She planted more in each year 1912 thru '16 and 1918 thru '20. Martha Crone planted it in 1934, '35, '38, '45, '46 and '56.
Prairie Violet is one of 21 native violets found in the Minnesota and is fairly widespread in the state, mostly absent in counties of the NE quadrant. In North America the species is found in the central section of the continent, from Alberta to Ontario in Canada and in the U.S. from Montana down to New Mexico and Arizona on the west, while in the east it reaches all states north of the Ohio River and south to Arkansas. Texas and Louisiana are excepted.
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.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"