At some time in most gardeners’ life, they become enchanted with violets…some with well-behaving violets and others with the less stellar members of the violet clan. For me, violets have been a tenuous love-hate relationship. As a child, I remember long days pulling the weedy violet, Viola odorata, from my father’s iris beds and cursing under my breath when this difficult to eradicate weed that mysteriously returned days after I pulled it. I would later understand that my childhood nemesis, and many other violets, reproduce via cleistogamus flowers….flowers that set seed without ever opening or without needing to be pollinated…what an incredibly devious plan of garden attack.
Over subsequent decades, other gardeners would share their favorite violet species with me, all arriving with the caveat that they weren’t weedy like Viola odorata. One by one, I watched each, carefully noting as each began an assault to take over my garden. One by one, I launched a shock and awe counterstrike until each was obliterated. With each new violet I tried, my level of distrust of the genus viola intensified, leading to a severe case of violet neurosis. Despite this fear, I knew there were well behaved members of the genus viola. One only need look at the popular winter annual, Viola × wittrockiana, a group of hybrid violas including species like Viola tricolor, Viola lutea, and Viola altaica, which had become ubiquitous in gardening circles under the common name, pansy. If I had been into planting annuals, pansies would certainly have been acceptable violas, but where was that well-behaving perennial violet?
Finally, a viola caught my attention that was growing at the JC Raulston Arboretum lath house where I used to volunteer. It was our NC native Viola pedata…commonly known as bird’s-foot violet. I watched this tiny clump for years, as this amazing violet never entertained thoughts of garden domination…instead sitting right there, flowering its head off. A perennial viola had finally won me over and now I would return the favor by telling the world about this great plant. First, I wanted to learn more about Viola pedata so in my subsequent plant travels the US I always kept an eye out for populations of bird’s-foot violet. I was thrilled to learn that Viola pedata was native to every state east of the Mississippi River…except Florida, which turns out to be an odd twist, since Florida nurseries now produce more commercial Viola pedata than all of the other states combined.
I learned many things about bird’s-foot violet as I visited it around the country…most notably that it’s not a very social violet, detesting competition from other larger plants. It also usually grows in rocky, well-drained, nutrient poor soil, often being one of the first plants to colonize new road cuts. Half-day sun seemed to be its preference as it tended to die out when exposed to both all day full sun, and too much shade. The flower color range of Viola pedata I saw was truly amazing…everything from dark violet to blue, to pure white, to amazing bi-color flowers.
Viola pedata is a delightfully cute, but tiny plant, forming a tight rosette that is barely visible in winter and in the growing season, never grows more than 3” tall by 6” wide. Consequently, bird’s-foot violet needs a special spot in the garden, where weeds won’t shade it or where it can be grown in a small patio container. The tiny, cutleaf green foliage looks exactly like the foot of a bird, hence the common name. Viola pedata is topped with tiny clusters of flowers in March and April as it celebrates the end of winter and beginning of spring. Commercially, the only form that you’re likely to find is a lovely bi-color-flowered selection made by the late Georgia plantsman Don Jacobs. It’s our hope as more people discover this lovely plant more colored flower forms will hit the commercial market. In the meantime, I hope more people will become acquainted with this amazing NC native.