by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. I hope you enjoy!
Certain elements of our environment I am always eager to find and actively seeking sightings. Bald eagles, lady slippers, and snakes are examples of things I love to encounter when I journey about. One group of plants I encounter daily present an uncertain feeling with me. This Nine Minute Naturalist will delve into my quandary with the violet family.
This spring at Wintergreen has been a lovely showcase of beautiful violets. A stroll down Hemlock Springs Trail reminded me how much I enjoy seeing Canada violets reaching to the sun amongst our other ephemeral plants. A hike down the Old Appalachian Trail or around the lovely Shamokin Springs Nature Preserve reminds me of how much the vibrant common blue violet and yellow violets add to the landscape. On the other hand, I enjoy gardening and the mass of wild violets that want to call my lettuce bed home is extreme. No amount of diligent removal seems to stem their tide. This dichotomy of emotions toward the same plant makes me beg the question, do I love or hate violets?
The violet family (Violaceae) is a large family of over 900 species of plants. The most commonly known species are violets and pansies which make up over half the 900 species. Most of the violet family are annual or perennial herbs. Violet flowers are usually irregular with 2 petals up and 3 petals down and 5 separate sepals. Flower colors are usually white, blue, purple, or yellow but violets do hybridize creating combination of colors. The leaves are simple and commonly heart-shaped. Here are the best identifying keys for taking plants from the family to species level: whether the flower stands above the leaves, whether the interior petals have “beards,” the extent the petals have veins and whether the leaves have hairs or are smooth.
Aside from the splash of color on the forest floor, my favorite feature of violets is there edible and medicinal uses. Both leaves and blossoms are edible, raw, or cooked, and are high in vitamin C. When first emerging, leaves can be eaten raw but are better sauteed or steamed later in their growing season. Flowers can be eaten raw and make excellent garnishes. They are often used for infusing flavor into jellies, syrup, or vinegar. The primary medicinal use are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. The leaves can be used for coughs and colds as well as skin conditions such as eczema. Please be aware that yellow violets can cause gastrointestinal distress so avoid viewing them as an edible option.
Now onto the bad and the ugly features of violets. Violets are like no other “weed” when they are growing where you do not want them to. Here are why the reasons violets are untamable: the flowers are self-fertilizing, the leaves have a waxy coating making herbicides not as effective, their root system is extensive allowing them to survive heat, cold and drought. An intense program of physical and chemical treatment of violets in a garden or yard environment will require 3 years of diligent attention.
Welcome to the constant persecution and defense of violets running through my head each spring when the wave of color floods our environment. While my emotions may ebb and flow concerning violets, I have concluded to appreciate their offerings in the natural environment and begrudgingly accept the fight in my garden beds. Beauty, edibility, and toughness are worthy qualities to accept in any plant regardless of the extra labor required.