Common blue violets (Viola papilionacea) are wildflowers or weeds, depending on your perspective. In the introduction to William Robinson’s The Wild Garden, Expanded Edition, Rick Darke distinguishes wildflowers from weeds by writing that wildflowers are usually perceived as pretty and innocuous. Wildflowers do no harm and give no offense. Weeds, on the other hand, may be pretty but their presence is perceived as detrimental to human purpose. According to Darke, weeds are unwanted wildflowers.
So, do I want common violets in my garden, or not. In his beautifully illustrated introduction to Robinson’s text, Darke shows what he calls naturalized violets on a wooded edge of a garden in Pennsylvania. Although he admits that violets are usually considered weeds in formal gardens, he believes they are useful in wild gardens. My gardens are not formal, nor do I want them to be, but are they wild enough to incorporate violets. That is the question.
Weeds of the Northeast points out that common blue violets (V. papilionacea) are hairless, whereas dooryard violets (V. sororia), although similar, have hairy leaves and stems. English violets (V. odorata) are also similar, but with wiry rhizomes. My blue violets have hairless leaves and stems, as can be seen in the photo above, and so I will name them V. papilionacea. However, common blue violets are largely referenced online as V. sororia. So it’s confusing.
The leaves are heart-shaped, rising on long petioles, or leaf stalks, from a basal crown. Flowers, rising on their own leafless stalks, range from deep purple or blue to light violet or white. Some are bicolored, as can be seen in the photos below.
Common blue violets are perennial. They reproduce by seeds and by rhizomes. They would form an awesome ground cover, but would they crowd out other desirable plants. Right now, I have too much bare ground in the old apple tree area and by the back fence. If I let the blue violets grow as they want to, will they prevent other wildflowers from becoming established. Are blue violets more desirable than chickweed. Well, yes. Decidedly. But will they be hard to get rid of if I decide I don’t want so many. It’s a problem.
I remember reading, but I don’t remember where, a lovely memoir about childhood chores. The author of the memoir was instructed by her mother to mow around blue violets in the lawn in springtime, and the author relates how funny the lawn looked with the ziggy swaths of mowing until such time as the violets stopped blooming. These were wildflower violets without doubt. Not weeds for sure. They were treasured at the expense of correct mowing protocols. What did the neighbors think. No matter. This family would not be swayed from their love of common blue violets.
Vita Sackville-West, in The Illustrated Garden Book, writes that she loves and encourages wild violets, V. odorata in England, in her gardens at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, and she tells a little story about Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864), an English poet who, according to Wikipedia, had a rumbustious character. As Sackville-West tells it, Walter Savage Landor once threw his cook out of the window in a fit of rage, and then exclaimed, “Good God! I forgot the violets.” So, it seems the English have a history of loving their V. odorata.
On the basis of the above anecdotes, I’m thinking I will embrace the common blue violets in my garden. They are pretty. They can serve as badly needed ground cover as least until other perennials become established. If I want to get rid of them at some point, and it’s hard work to do so, that’s the worst of it. So, I think it’s worth the risk. For now, at least, common blue violets shall be called wildflowers in my garden. Not weeds.
May 6 update. According to NABA-North Jersey Butterfly Club website, violets are the larval host plants for fritillaries. Specifically, variegated fritillary, great spangled fritillary, Aphrodite fritillary, and meadow fritillary, all of which have been sighted and photographed in central Jersey. Particularly concerning the great spangled fritillary, NABA NJ reports that females lay eggs near, but not on, violets in late summer. Maintaining patches of violets in my garden and leaving leaf litter and wood chips around them may increase the chance of sighting fritillaries the following summer.
Now I know for sure that blue violets are welcome wildflowers in my garden.