By: Bob Brett
Date: May 18, 2001
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Not all that rhymes
has to be true.
In spite of the old rhyme, Whistler’s most common violet is yellow. Stream violet (Viola glabella) is one of the most colourful and common flowers to emerge in spring. Like the ubiquitous skunk cabbage, it sometimes grows right beside retreating snow and can occur from valley bottom up to subalpine elevations.
All violets are easily identified by their characteristic flowers. (Picture a garden-variety pansy, which is actually a violet.) Four upper petals surround a lower, spurred petal which looks a bit like Gene Simmons, from the old glam rock band KISS, sticking his tongue out. While the superannuated rocker apparently (still) attracts members of the opposite sex with his performance, violet’s flowers are intended to attract pollinators, especially bumblebees.
This fifth petal is striped with thin, purple lines to provide handy landing strips for bees. The clever flower design ensures the bee has to squeeze into a narrow part of the flower to reach the nectary (the nectar-secreting gland which attracts pollinators). This arrangement makes the bee brush against the violet’s anthers and plasters the bee with pollen. Meanwhile, special “beard hairs” brush off the pollen the bee has collected from other plants. The whole thing is designed almost like a full-service car wash, and in this way violets maximize cross-pollination between plants.
But nature usually doesn’t leave things to chance and violets are no exception. As much as they may love bumblebees, violets don’t pin their entire future on a bee’s amorous advances. As a back-up, violets produce tiny, drab flowers late in summer which don’t open and fertilize themselves. Regardless of how they’re fertilized, the resulting seeds are disseminated away from the plant from exploding capsules.
Stream violets can be quite tall (up to 50 cm) and tend to occur in bunches, usually in moist sites. The lush, heart-shaped leaves form a perfect counterpoint to the showy yellow flowers. Gardeners wanting to add a natural splash of colour to a wetter garden should beware that stream violets can be invasive. If you want to add stream violets (or any native plant) to your garden, please don’t remove them from the wild. Ask instead at your local garden store. If they don’t carry natives, you can go to the early season plant sales in Vancouver (watch for the Van Dusen Gardens sale at the end of the month).