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Wild Blue Violet (Viola sororia): One Name, Many Faces

Jim Lakin MD, Master Gardner

For lovers of that special harbinger of springtime, the wild violet, there are many fascinating and rewarding varieties to choose from and enjoy. In this article, Jim Lakin, describes various varieties and explores why you may want to add this native perennial to your woodland garden.

Wild Blue Violet (Viola sororia): One Name, Many Faces

I long ago realized I do not have the patience to be a taxonomist.  The wild blue violet is a case in point.  The battle raged among botanists for years as to whether or not to split a number of similar plants into separate species or to combine them into one.  The “lumpers” finally won out over the “splitters” and today Viola sororia is the moniker for some quite different plants.  We’ll discuss that in a bit.


Wild blue violet as a native perennial found in almost all of Eastern North America including the entire Midwest.  It is a woodland plant, loving humus-rich soils and tolerating a high amount of shade.  Most varieties are pretty easy to grow in any rich soil that is moist in the spring when they flower.  If the soil becomes dry in summer the plant may go dormant.  A number of varieties freely self-sow although many propagate by rhizomes.  Indeed, some varieties can be aggressive growers even moving into grass lawns.  Nonetheless, they can be a wonderful addition to other woodland flowers in a shade garden. 

Wild blue violet can be an important ecological niche plant, hosting several fritillary butterflies as well as attracting a number of specialist bees and other pollinators.  Happily, the fritillary butterfly which the plant hosts can keep the more invasive violet varieties in check by feeding off them during the butterfly’s larval stage.  Mind though that this larval caterpillar emerges from its egg in the fall and overwinters in the surrounding leaf-litter.  If you rake up the leaves in your wildflower garden in the fall, you will destroy the caterpillars before they can trim back the violets by feeding in the spring and subsequently emerge as fritillary butterflies.

Viola sororia is variable in its form and behavior.  Flowers are usually royal blue but the color can vary from light blue to white on one end of the spectrum to a deep navy on the other.  Among the recognized strains is the woolly blue violet.  This fellow is covered by short woolly hairs upon its stem, producing springtime flowers of a deep blue-violet.  He is found in woodland flood plains and in upland oak-hickory woods.  In the garden he is usually well behaved with limited self-sowing.

Viola bloom color can vary

Butterfly violet or dooryard violet is one of the largest and most aggressive strains of Viola sororia.  It is a larger plant (one foot) and self-seeds freely.  It can shadow out smaller wildflowers and even invade lawns.   If you adopt a live-and-let-live attitude, however, the Fritillary butterfly caterpillars usually will keep the dooryard violet in check and have a good meal in the bargain.  And you may have some spectacular butterfly watching later in the summer.

Finally, there is a variety known as the Confederate violet.  It forms a blue to grey flower with speckles.  There are a couple of commercially marketed strains: “Freckles” with speckled blue flowers and “Rosie” a rosy-white form.

For lovers of that special harbinger of springtime, the wild violet, there are many fascinating and rewarding varieties to choose from and enjoy.

Photo credits: North Carolina State Extension (1), University of Minnesota Extension (2)

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