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Eastern roundleaf yellow violet

Not all violets are blue.
Photo by Charles J. Bonner


Violets are Yellow ... And White ... And Blue. The Multicolored Wild Violets of New Hampshire.

Source: Personal Observations

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Not all violets are blue. So what characteristics define a plant as a violet? Take a look at some of the wild violets I've seen in New Hampshire.

Information about wild violets is surprisingly hard to find. Most articles I've found on the Internet are about how to eradicate wild violets from your garden, treating them as weeds. The books I have, and the few articles I've found which treat them as interesting parts of the ecosystem, usually have only partial or cursory information about wild violets.

Members of the genus Viola all have certain properties of their flowers and leaves that identify them. They all have flowers that are bilaterally symmetrical, not radially symmetrical as most "typical" flowers. The flowers have five petals, with two pairs of fan-shaped petals pointing up and out, and one wider petal pointing downward. The downward-pointing petal usually has "veins" in it which are a different color, sharply contrasting with the main color. The leaves are usually heart-shaped and scalloped, but some violets have round or other shaped leaves. The plants typically have no stems or branches, and each leaf and flower stalk grows directly out of the ground.

You may notice that cultivated pansies, which come in a huge variety of colors, match this general description of violets. Yes, garden pansies are members of the genus Viola, having originated as hybrids of at least three species of wild violet.

You may also notice that the so-called African violet (Saintpaulia sp.) is not a violet at all. Despite some superficial similarities, including a typical violet color, it is in an entirely different order.

African violet

The African violet (Saintpaulia sp.) is not a violet at all.
Photo by Charles J. Bonner

Trout lily

Trout lily (Erythronium americanum) is also known as "dogtooth violet," but it is not a violet at all. White Mountain National Forest, in early spring.
Photo by Charles J. Bonner



There are also several plants in the lily family (Liliaceae) which have the word "violet" in their common names. The one I call "trout lily" (Erythronium americanum) is also known as the "dogtooth violet," and there is an Old World species called the dogtooth violet (E. dens-canis) whose scientific name means "dog tooth." The bulb-like roots of these plants are said to resemble a dog's tooth, but why they are called "violets" is a mystery to me. They are not even violet in color, and their flowers and leaves bear no resemblance to those of the violet genus.

So, what about the wild true violets?

I know of about seven species of wild violets where I usually hike in New Hampshire, and two of them are not described in any book I've found. I don't suppose they are unknown to science, but they are generally treated as "just another wild violet" and not worth taking up space in a book. So, I will attempt to give them their due.

Part of the problem is that there are so many species of violets. According to most sources, there are at least 400 species worldwide. No field guide to wildflowers can dedicate enough space to cover this many species of a single genus, so they only cover the most common or distinctive ones.

The first of New Hampshire's wild violets to appear in springtime is the eastern roundleaf yellow violet (Viola rotundifolia), also known as the early yellow violet. The best place I know to find them is along the upper reaches of the Ripley Falls Trail in Crawford Notch State Park, just about 100-200 yards before the waterfall. They bloom on the steep banks beside the trail in very late April and early May in bare patches among the last of the melting snowbanks.

Yellow violets on steep bank

Eastern roundleaf yellow violets (V. rotundifolia) poke out of the leaf litter on a steep bank beside the Ripley Falls Trail, Crawford Notch State Park, in early spring.
Photo by Charles J. Bonner

Eastern roundleaf yellow violet

Eastern roundleaf yellow violets (V. rotundifolia) under a pink granite rock beside the Ripley Falls Trail, Crawford Notch State Park, in early spring.
Photo by Charles J. Bonner



Next are the common blue violets (V. papilionacea) and nearly identical sister violets (V. sororia). These both begin to bloom in lowland areas in the middle of May, and they continue blooming right into October. They grow in open, lawn-like areas which are partially shaded. They can be seen in almost any park, such as Mine Falls Park in Nashua, where they grow along the banks of the canal and in the moderately sunny areas beside the wider trails. Oddly enough, in Mine Falls Park, the sister violet is much more common than the "common" violet. Neither of these species is very common in the mountains, but they may be found on roadsides and the shaded edges of meadows in lower elevations. You can tell the two apart because sister violet has hairy stems and leaves, while the common blue violet has smooth stems and leaves.

Violets beside the trail

Common blue violets (V. papilionacea) in a moderately sunny spot beside the Turtle Trail in Mine Falls Park. Most of the greenery is not the leaves of the violets, but various other undergrowth.
Photo by Charles J. Bonner

Sister violet

Sister violets (V. sororia) can be recognized by their hairy stems and leaves.
Photo by Charles J. Bonner



Just a bit later, the northern white violets (V. pallens) appear. They begin to bloom in southern New Hampshire about the end of May. They bloom in the White Mountains from mid-June to mid-July. These plants grow right in streambeds, almost as if they were aquatic plants. Most commonly, they are rooted between two rocks so that water flows over and around the roots, but the plant itself stands above the water. They can be found on the slopes of Pack Monadnock in Miller State Park, and on Mount Monadnock in mid-May wherever there is a sizeable seep. Later, they bloom in Dry River behind Dry River Campground in Crawford Notch State Park. But the best place to see them is in Bemis Brook along the Bemis Brook and Arethusa Falls Trails in Crawford Notch. In places, such as above Arethusa Falls and below Bemis Falls, they are downright plentiful.

White violets in streambed

Northern white violets (V. pallens) grow right in the streambed, often in a crack between two rocks, like these growing in Dry River, Crawford Notch State Park.
Photo by Charles J. Bonner

Northern white violet

Northern white violet (V. pallens) along the Wapack Trail on Pack Monadnock, Miller State Park.
Photo by Charles J. Bonner



There is another white violet which I can not identify. It grows in exactly the same environment as the northern white violet, and blooms at exactly the same time in Crawford Notch (I've never seen it anywhere else), but it is quite a different plant. It is tiny, with leaves barely bigger than a nickel on a plant less than three inches across. The flower is only about a quarter of an inch wide, and I even have a photo of one of these flowers completely engulfed in a drop of rain. The flower stem is more than six inches long, and hangs below the level where the plant is rooted, but since it grows on rocky ledges in the streambed, the stem does not trail along the ground.

Unknown white violets in streambed

Unknown species of white violet (Viola sp.) growing on a ledge in Bemis Brook above Arethusa Falls, Crawford Notch State Park.
Photo by Charles J. Bonner

Unknown white violet in raindrop

Unknown species of white violet (Viola sp.). Its flower is so small it can be engulfed in a single raindrop. This one is in Bemis Brook below Bemis Falls, Crawford Notch State Park
Photo by Charles J. Bonner



Another violet I can not identify blooms in southern New Hampshire toward the end of May. I have only seen it in a particular swampy area along the Beaver Brook Trail on lands belonging to the Beaver Brook Association in Hollis, NH. This is a very tall blue violet, nearly 18 inches tall, with somewhat large flowers and leaves. Its height matches the Canada violet (V. canadensis), but the color is wrong. I can't find any description of a blue violet that grows so tall, that has its leaves and flowers on the same stem, and that lives in swamps.

Unknown swamp violet

Unknown "swamp violet" (Viola sp.) along Beaver Brook Trail, Hollis, NH. It does not match the description of any violet in any reference I have checked.
Photo by Charles J. Bonner

Dog violet

The dog violet (V. conpersa) has larger and paler flowers than the common blue violet. This one is growing in a shady spot beside Beaver Brook Trail, Hollis, NH.
Photo by Charles J. Bonner



Also in the latter part of May, the dog violet (V. conpersa) blooms in southern New Hampshire. They are rather similar to the common blue violet, but with the leaves and flowers on the same stalk. Dog violets also have larger flowers of a paler violet color and a distinctive shape. The two side petals are more widely separated from the two upper petals, and they fold over on themselves a bit. They also seem to need more shade than the common blue violet. The best place I know to find them is along Elkins Road in the Beaver Brook Association lands in Hollis, NH.

Mid-June in Crawford Notch sees the bloom of the smooth yellow violet (V. pensylvanica). They grow in well shaded wooded areas, requiring much more shade than the common blue violet. The best place I know to find them is in the Dry River Campground, where they grow very profusely in several campsites, perhaps especially number 11.

Smooth yellow violet

Smooth yellow violet (V. pensylvanica) in Dry River Campground, Crawford Notch State Park.
Photo by Charles J. Bonner

Smooth yellow violet

Dense patch of smooth yellow violets (V. pensylvanica) in Dry River Campground, Crawford Notch State Park.
Photo by Charles J. Bonner



Whenever you head out into the woods, fields and streams, keep an eye out for wildflowers. If you see that distinctive five-petal arrangement with contrasting veins in the lower petal, you've found a violet, no matter what color it is.




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