Many violets share numerous attributes and are difficult to differentiate from one another. Botanists estimate that there are between 500 and 600 species worldwide, approximately 85 of which can be found in North America. Luckily for the casual wildflower enthusiast, only about half of these are common in New York. There’s tremendous variation among the community, with many varieties garnering oxymoronic names, such as round-leaved yellow violet and sweet white violet. While a majority live up to their names in appearance, more than a few are anything but violet, being completely white, pink and even the brightest shade of yellow, with numerous combinations and levels of mixing. All of these attributes aid in their identification.
Yellow violets appear to be the most primitive, with their flowers being the first shift away from the ancestral green. Purple, in contrast, is thought to be one of the most advanced colors. Evolution in progress can be witnessed in the tall, white, Canada violet (Viola canadensis), a native to Canada and the eastern U.S.. Many botanists speculate that the mostly white flower, often dabbed with minor purplish tingeing on the back of the petals, is transitioning from entirely white to "violet." The Canada violet grows throughout the Mohawk Valley in association with the large white trillium.
Violets can be separated into two general categories: those with stems from which leaves and flowers protrude, and those that are stemless, having appendages emanating directly from the roots, with flowers being supported on a thin and usually low, leafless stalk.
In addition to having showy blossoms, certain species possess a trait known as cleistogamy, meaning they are capable of self-pollination by means of tiny, barely noticeable flowers that resemble unopened buds. The term "cleistogamy" combines the Greek ‘kleistos’ meaning ‘closed’ with ‘gamy’ meaning ‘marriage.’ Once fertilization has occurred by means of insects or self-pollination, the seeds are ready for explosive dispersal. After the seeds are fully developed, the pods they’re stored in slowly dry out, with the pod gradually tightening around the seeds, building up tension in the process, similar to the action of a spring. Later, when the pods are disturbed, or sometimes just randomly, the pressure becomes too great and the seeds are shot out like miniature cannonballs. Amazingly, seeds are capable of flying up to 15 feet away from the parent plant. Pretty impressive for such a tiny plant!
Once on the ground, the seeds are further dispersed by ants. Attached to each tiny seed is a fleshy appendage called an elaiosome that’s rich in protein and lipids, but serves no direct impact to the seed’s survival. Like the sweet nectar of a flower, these elaiosomes are tempting treats to insects, and ants in particular are readily enticed to collect them. Once dragged back to the colony, the energy-laden accessory is removed for consumption, and the hard seed body is dumped in a waste pit where it may ultimately sprout. This dual dispersal technique, using both physiological and biological mechanisms for seed movement, proves to be an effective evolutionary strategy, ensuring rapid colonization of available habitat.
Insects aren’t the only ones that appreciate violets’ tasty nature. In fact, humans find nearly all parts of the plants edible. The leafy greens can be collected to create a salad high in vitamins A and C, superseding that of an equivalent amount of oranges. Beginning in the nineteenth century, candied violets gained favor as a dessert garnishment and were widely served. Though their popularity has decreased over the years, in some circles they’re still a favorite for topping sweet dishes of cake or ice cream. Traditionally, a syrup was also made by boiling the flowers in a concoction of sugar. Apart from sweetening the lips, the syrup is useful as a substitute for litmus paper. The solution turns red in the presence of an acid, green for a base.
To the Haudenosaunee and other eastern Native Americans, the flower is revered as a symbol of love. An Iroquoian myth, akin to the tragic Shakespearian Romeo and Juliet, tells of how two lovers of warring tribes were slain while trying to elope, and where each drop of blood hit the ground, a violet sprouted to commemorate their boundless passion.
While on the topic of romance, it’s also interesting to note that violets used to be the traditional flower of Valentine’s Day. Almost all bouquets given to loved ones sported purple rather than red. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that violets began to be supplanted by the thorny rose.
Violets were substantial money makers during the early part of the twentieth century. Like other popular flowers that are added to bouquets or home gardens today, violets were prodigiously cultivated in greenhouses by the millions. Rhinebeck, a quaint, pastoral town located along the shores of the Hudson River in southeastern New York, cornered this unusual market. Growers made sizable profits by shipping flowers to New York City, where there was an especially high demand. Rhinebeck’s proximity to the city market, and its easy access to the railroad paralleling the Hudson helped make it the "Violet Capital of the World." At its peak, hundreds of greenhouses routinely cranked out thousands of violets per day in the spring-a fast worker could pick as many as 5,000 during a single shift. Eleanor Roosevelt herself often purchased copious amounts of various exotic cultivar varieties from nearby nurseries to line the gardens at her riverfront estate in Hyde Park, just south of the violet hotbed. She was frequently seen wearing intricate violet arrangements, making it a habit to do so at her husband’s numerous inaugurations.
Small white violets are sweet-scented.
Next time you’re outside in spring, keep your eyes open for the cosmopolitan violets, which can be found growing just about anywhere-from open and sunny backyards to rich, sheltered woodlands, and even in the dampest wetlands. Though small and unassuming, they nevertheless provide a cheerful reminder of the fecundity and diversity of the spring season. As English philosopher Bernard Williams succinctly said, "We may pass violets looking for roses. We may pass contentment looking for victory."
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