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Good Growing

Embracing the common blue violet

blue violet

So far this year I have professed my reverie of dandelions, shrugged off creeping Charlie, and now it has come time to confess my favorite 'weed' - the common blue violet (Viola soraria). Yes, it is that violet, which so many homeowners battle year after year, often in their lawns. Search the internet, and you will find scores of articles on how to control this aggressive weed. Moreover, yes, I do grow common blue violet purposefully in my landscape.

If your blood is already boiling at the idea a self-described gardener and professional horticulturalist is intentionally allowing this plant to live unhindered, you may need to step away from the article, because it is going to get worse.

The reaction from most when my opinion for violets is revealed can be quite amusing. During a conversation with my mother, I casually mentioned I let violets grow wherever they want in my landscape beds. Her shocked expression was followed by, "You can't do that! They'll take over!"

"Yes," I said. "That's the point." And take over they have.

Over the past several years, violets have been a great addition to my yard. In spring they bloom beautiful violet to blue flowers. Some flowers even emerge white. Within the species, there is a lot of variability. Some leaves are smooth and hairless, while other plants have rough hairy leaves.

Additionally, violets are edible. Some have a nutty pea-like flavor, while others have a sweet flavor and intense aroma. One-half cup of violet leaves is reported to contain as much vitamin C as three oranges. Both the flowers and leaves of common blue violet are edible, but the roots are not.

Notes on eating wild plants:

  • Make sure you have correctly identified the plant. When it comes to common blue violet, there are a few toxic look-a-likes.
  • Harvested plants should never be sprayed with pesticides not labeled for edible crops.
  • African violets are unrelated and are NOT safe for consumption

Though common garden violet can be consumed, that is not why they remain in my yard. I let the violets grow for two reasons 1) they make an excellent groundcover, 2) for the wildlife appeal.

The violets in my landscape beds have made a fantastic groundcover in such a short amount of time. My perennials and pots of annuals, vegetables, and herbs seem to grow well alongside this spreading plant. Whether in the full shade under my maple tree or full sun among the daylilies, the violets have thrived.

Typically, common blue violets are found in moist shade. Hence why so many homeowners battle this plant in the lawn underneath trees. Often violets are present in home lawns because there is not enough light to grow turf successfully, the soil is compacted, or the tree roots are outcompeting the turf for resources in the soil. If grass doesn't grow, might as well mow the violets and be happy something is growing under the tree.

Wildlife value was the initial spark that stayed my hand when pulling weeds three years ago. Many animals eat violets, but I was thinking primarily of the plant as a larval food source for the group of Great Fritillary butterflies.

Common blue violet tolerates many of the herbicides we throw at it and is resistant to deer. It is pretty darn tough. If you can't stand to have it in your garden beds all season long, don't worry, it grows actively in the spring and fall while fading out during the hot summer months.

If you've made it this far in the article, I am doubtful you have been converted to the violet side, but next time you go to spray or pull that weedy patch of violets, know the potential held in this plant. After all, roses are red, and violets are good.