By Alyssa Nyberg
Oh those March showers have brought ever so many violet flowers. Our prairies and savannas at Kankakee Sands are covered in violets right now and yum, it is absolutely delicious to my eyes. The vibrant purple, amidst the wash of bright green which covers the landscape is so lovely. And as my son likes to remind me, popping a violet flower into his mouth, violets are edible, too. A double yum!
Bird’s foot violet (Viola pedata var. lineariloba) is my personal favorite violet, and it is in bloom right now on the sandiest, driest of soils at Kankakee Sands, as well as all around northwest Indiana and northeast Illinois. This violet is named for its leaves, which are deeply lobed or divided into thin segments, looking indeed like a bird’s foot, albeit a green one. Although the leaves of this violet are not the typical round or oval shape like those of most violets, their flowers do have the characteristic violet petal arrangement: two petals pointing upward, three petals pointing downward.
The flowers of bird’s foot violet are incredibly large in comparison to the rest of the plant. The entire plant is only 3 to 4 inches in height, but the flower is 1.5” large. That is nearly half the height of the plant!
Bird’s foot violet begins flowering in April and continues through the month of June. Each flower sits atop a long, leafless stalk. The color of the petals can vary from plant to plant, from a light blue to a dark purple. The lowest petal of each bird’s foot violet has dark violet lines which serve as a guide for insects to follow in order to find the nectar inside the flower.
Once the flower has been pollinated, it produces half-inch long green pods which contain copper-colored seeds and hang downward. As the seeds ripen, the pod rotates upward and then when the seeds are mature, the pod explodes open with an audible crack! And the seeds fly! The seeds are often flung three to five inches but, with the help of ants, seeds can move even further. Ants are attracted to a sugary substance on the tip of the seed. Ants carry the seeds to their underground nest in order to dine on the sweet sugars. And once buried by the ants, the seeds can germinate anew. That is literally a sweet situation!
There are 21 native violets that grow in the Chicagoland region. Some grow in sun while others grow in shade. They span the gamut from growing in dry places, like the bird’s foot violet, to growing in saturated soils. Many violets are available from native plant nurseries if you should want to add more violets into your own landscaping. They are an attractive spring flower and easy to grow. Our own yard has many of the common violet (Viola sororia) in bloom right now. Our goat pasture is thick with them. I don’t know why the goats don’t eat them as my son does (despite my glares and warnings to leave the flowers for the butterflies). Maybe like me, the goats just like to gaze at the rich purple flowers in the green growth of spring vegetation.
Violets are a special species at Kankakee Sands. Not only do violets attract many butterflies and skippers, but they are the sole food source of the larval form of the regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia). When the butterfly larva hatch, they feed only upon the leaves of violets until eventually, the larva pupate and become butterflies. So, the more violets we have in our prairies and savannas, the more butterflies of all sorts and sizes we will have, including the regal fritillary butterfly.
If you’d like to see bird’s foot violet in bloom, come to Kankakee Sands this month and walk the Conrad Station Savanna trail. If you like to see a variety of violets as the butterflies of Kankakee Sands, please join us for a free butterfly hike on Saturday, July 2 from 9 am to noon. We will marvel at the power of the violet and the beauty of the butterflies, including the beauty of the state endangered regal fritillary butterfly. The hike will be led by Nature Conservancy staff member, John Henry Drake. To find out more and to RSVP, please contact Alyssa Nyberg at 219-866-1706.
We’ll be sure to have yummy snacks at the hike…but sorry, we won’t be serving violet flowers.
The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands is 10,000 acres of prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois, open every day of the year for public enjoyment. The Nature Conservancy in an international, non-profit organization. For more information about Kankakee Sands, click here or call the office at 219-285-2184.