Viola renifolia A Gray
Also known as White Violet, Northern White Violet
Poking through moist leaf litter or deep moss, the Kidney-Leaved Violet is one of the first signs that spring has truly come to the hills. In the four years that I have photographed this little beauty, all images were taken between the last days of May and the end of June.
The species name renifolia refers to the kidney-shape of this violet’s leaves. They are further described as orbicular, or rounded-convex, and cordate, heart-shaped. (source) They are toothed and slightly hairy on the underside.
One of many violets native to North America, the Kidney-leaved violet can be found across Canada and south to the northern United States. Rising above the loose cluster of leaves, its flower is classic violet distinguished by its white colour with purple striping on its lip petal and wings (side petals), although most that I have found have very sparse striping on the wings or none at all. The stripes are thought to be guides for insects, encouraging them to push into the flower’s throat for nectar. V. renifolia has no beard to comb pollen from visiting insects and a very short spur.
Many violets produce a late-season flowers if the first blooms remain unfertilized. They bloom so soon after the snow has retreated from under the thick coniferous canopy that often pollinators are not yet active. These late blooms are closed and hidden and self-pollinating. Violet seeds are dispersed in small explosions and carried away by ants attracted to a special oil on their surface.
One half cup of violet leaves contains as much vitamin C as 4 oranges. They are also high in vitamin A. All above-ground parts of the violet are edible but the rhizomes, fruits and/or seeds of some are poisonous. The plant was used by the Cree in salves, tonics and as a (mildly laxative) relaxing tea. (source)
I can’t imagine gathering enough to do anything with, without wiping out entire populations. I have, however garnished the odd salad with ‘johnny-jump-ups’, which volunteer en masse in my garden.
Quandaries With Identification
Of three slightly different-looking violets that I’ve found in the local woods, the Kidney-Leaved Violet is the most abundant. It’s easily distinguished from the Early Blue Violet V. adunca by its white flowers. I’m less sure about one that might be Western Canada Violet, V. canadensis only because it has a point at the tip of it’s heart-shaped leaves. There are other features that make me less sure. A closer look next spring will hopefully tell.
‘My’ violets are very tiny but I’m not quite as concerned with this as sources vary in their estimation of leaf-width and plant height. (My finger behind the top leaf in the above image is about 12mm wide.)
There is also conflict in my resources as to whether this plant has rhisomes (link) or not (link) but I’m reluctant to dig one up to find out. I’m tempted to do a little scratching next spring however because the absence of stolons is apparently one of the best ways to distinguish it from V. pallens, which is listed in Rare Vascular Plants of Alberta by Kershaw et al. I don’t think it is though, because the ones I’ve photographed have leaves that are slightly hairy on the underside.
Other common names: Hookedspur Violet, Early Blue Violet, Sand Violet, and Western Dog Violet
O wind, where have you been,
That you blow so sweet?
Among the violets
Which blossom at your feet.
The honeysuckle waits
For Summer and for heat
But violets in the chilly Spring
Make the turf so sweet.
Cristina (Georgina) Rossetti
Symbolizing the love of truth, or the truth of love, blue violets feature in many legends. They sprang from the blood of Greek god Attis and from where Orpheus laid his enchanted lute. Zeus created them for Io (the Greek word for violet) after turning her into a cow. Venus beat her rivals until they turned into violets and yet violets came to symbolize modesty or humility for Christians. In Iroquois legend, the first blue violets sprang from where the bodies of two lovers had fallen after being murdered by her people. (source)
Although I realize V. adunca may not have been the exact species to inspire the mythology and literary arts of the past, it’s easy to imagine how any of its sisters may have. I have, so far, only found them on one east-facing slope above a narrow forest ravine. And what a find! What joy to come upon these sparkles of blue among litter of the previous summer’s decaying cast-offs.
With wings lightly bearded at the pale, darkly penciled throat, the soft violet flower stands above juicy green leaves like a diminutive queen above her ladies laden with sustenance. There are at least 15 species of violets in Alberta, all beloved for their charming flowers in various shades of blue, yellow and white. What flower lover doesn’t recognize the five petaled princess: two petals in pairs at either side, a usually striped or penciled lower lip and a spur.
The species name adunca refers to the Early Blue Violet’s hooked spur, which I haven’t (yet) succeeded in photographing.
More about violets in general can be found on the Kidney-Leaved Violet page.