Know Your Natives – Southern Woolly Violet

Southern Woolly Violet (Viola villosa) of the Violet (Violaceae) family is a small perennial herb with evergreen leaves and early flowers. The genus name is the classical Latin name for violets. The specific epithet is Latin for “hairy,” emphasizing the plant’s dense pubescence. Scattered populations occur across the southeastern U.S. from central Oklahoma and eastern Texas to the Atlantic Coast of the Carolinas and north-central Florida. In Arkansas, the species occurs primarily in the southern half of the state, in the West Gulf Coastal Plain, Ouachita Mountains, and Arkansas River Valley, with a few scattered occurrences in the central Ozark Highlands. Habitats are well-drained sandy soils in open woodlands and clearings where the leaf litter and/or grasses are thin. Plants are easily hidden by leaf litter and other vegetation. Other common names are Southern Wood Violet and Carolina Violet (the species first collected in South Carolina).

Photo 1: This self-seeded colony is on a rocky, south slope in a wooded area. Photo – March 1.

Plants consist of a vertical, underground stem (no aboveground stem) that produces long-descending roots (to ca 6 inches) along its lower portion and new leaves and flowers from the crown. Stems of mature plants may divide, producing several crowns. Stems lengthen over the years––a large plant might have a stem 2 inches deep and ¼ inch wide, with numerous, bumpy leaf scars from dropped-leaves. Down-pull of the roots maintains the stem’s vertical orientation with the crown at the soil surface.

Photo 2: Vertical underground stems, with bumpy leaf scars, may branch (see plant at center of photo). White roots are mostly along lower portion of the stem. Photo – January 26.

New leaves, first appearing in mid-winter, are rolled-up along their midrib. Initially ascending, they spread wide in summer and hug the ground in winter. Leaves are largest and most numerous during flowering when plants may be 2 inches tall and 4 inches wide. Plants may have up to 10 leaves per crown. A pair of short-lived, well-hidden lanceolate stipules, with fimbriate margins, occurs at the base of new leaves.

Photo 3: New leaves, initially rolled-up along their midribs (see at center of photo and to left), have a basal pair of lanceolate stipules with fimbriate margins. This plant has two developing flowers (pink) which are protected by a pair of lanceolate bracts (also pink). Photo – January 26.
Photo 4: The underground stem of this plant divided, producing two crowns. Leaves and flowers originate from the crowns. Basal fimbriate stipules can be seen at the base of several leaves. Photo – January 26.

Leaf blades are extremely variable, especially as the growing season progresses: in outline, from reniform to orbiculate to ovate-elliptic, and in size to 3 inches long and 2 inches wide, narrowly decurrent on petioles to 4 inches long. Blade color on the upper surface varies from medium green to bluish green; the lower surface is lighter. Venation also varies in color from green to purplish. Leaf pubescence is distinctive: blades are villous, with dense, short hairs on both surfaces, the hairs longer on the upper surface and along the margins. Leaves feel slightly soft and have a sheen in certain lighting. Margins may be entire (uncut), but are typically minutely serrate to crenate from petiole to apex. Leaves that survive through winter die as spring leaves develop.

Photo 5: Upper and lower surfaces of leaf blades and petioles (except for petiole grooves) are densely villous. Photo – January 12.
Photo 6: Veins are purplish and highlighted by dark green borders. Margins are serrate to crenate. A pubescent sheen can be seen on several leaves. Larger leaves are ovate. Photo – March 31.

The inflorescence of solitary, showy, cross-pollinated flowers appears in March and April. The calyx comprises 5 lanceolate, pubescent sepals with earlike auricles at their base. The corollas measure to ⅝ inch wide and ¾ inch long and are similar in structure to all of Arkansas’ Viola species, comprising 5 lavender to violet-blue petals: an upper pair of back-flared petals, 2 down-tilted lateral petals, and a projecting lower lip petal that serves as a landing pad for bumble bees and other pollinators. The upper four petals are oblanceolate while the lip is elongate-oval, all with rounded apex and attenuate base. The main veins of the lower three petals are dark violet into the throat, prominently so on the lip. In addition, the lower three petals are bearded at the throat with a tangle of long hairs concentrated on the lip. At its junction with the flower stalk, the lip petal forms a bulbous nectar pouch or spur that projects backward––a hallmark of the distinctive Viola flower.

Photo 7: Orientation of the upper and lateral petals seen in side view (lip mostly hidden). The white nectar pouch of the lip petal projects behind the flower stalk. Leaves at lower right are those of Violet Wood Sorrel.

Five stamens with short filaments, pale flattened anthers, and prominent orange anther appendages tightly encircle the style below the knobby stigma. The lowermost pair of filaments bear blade-like nectaries that are inserted into the nectar pouch. The pistil comprises 3 carpels united to form an ovary with a single chamber and 3 parietal placentas––the ovules are attached to the ovary wall rather than to a central axis.

Photo 8: The densely pubescent flower stalks are bent to position flowers downward. Main veins of the lower three petals are highlighted in dark violet. With new leaves maturing, overwintered leaves soon die. Photo – March 7.
Photo 9: As seen from top of flower, the style with a knobby stigma is exserted from the encircling orange anther appendages. Lower three petals are bearded. Photo – March 29.
Photo 10: With upper four petals and a sepal removed, pale yellow anthers with prominent orange appendages can be seen. The nectar pocket (white) is an extension of the lip at its junction with the flower stalk. Photo – March 29.

Like many Viola species, Southern Wooly Violet produces self-pollinated (or “cleistogamous”) flowers later in the season. These flowers are fully fertile, but small and without petals, resembling flower buds––the calyx remains closed over the stamens and ovary. Capsules of cleistogamous flowers mature on shorter stalks.

Fertilized ovaries of both cross- and self-pollinated flowers develop into ovoid-ellipsoid capsules about ⅜ inch long. The 50 or so seeds of a capsule are ejected a short distance when capsules split along the midribs of their 3 carpels. With attached gel packets, seeds may be further dispersed by ants. The smooth-looking pear-shaped seeds, about 1/16 inch long, have a minutely pocked surface.

Photo 11: As indicated by stalk length, the stalk extending off top of photo is apparently that of a cross-pollinated flower, while the shorter, lower stalk bears a cleistogamously developed capsule. Both stalks have a pair of elongate-lanceolate bracts. Photo – April 20.
Photo 12: Capsule valves bear parietal placentas. Ants may assist with seed dispersal as they feed on attached gel packet. Squares = ¼ inch. Photo – May 4.

Southern Woolly Violet is an attractive plant for a shady to partially sunny garden with dryish to mesic soil. A seeded colony may form an interesting ground cover. The plant’s small size probably would not detract or interfere with companion plants. Another evergreen violet that should be considered for a garden is Birds-Foot Violet with its showier flowers (all cross-pollinated) and distinctive leaves.

In addition to Southern Woolly Violet, at least 14 other species of Viola occur in Arkansas*. Of these, at least seven can have blue to violet flowers. Characteristics of Southern Woolly Violet, taken as a suite, that distinguish it from other species include 1) Vertical underground stems (no above-ground stems), 2) Reniform to orbiculate to ovate-elliptic leaves with cordate bases and without lobes, 3) Dense pubescence on upper and lower leaf surfaces and flower stalks, 4) Purplish veins, and 5) Colonies formed by seeding only (not stoloniferous). The rare Walter’s Violet (Viola walteri) may be the most easily confused with Southern Woolly Violet. It has similarly shaped leaves with purple veins and similar flowers. However, Walter’s Violet has creeping, prostrate stems and more notably toothed stipules.

*The taxonomy of violets––especially that of the “stemless” blue violets––is unsettled. Some authorities recognize a number of additional species which may also be present in Arkansas.

Article and photographs by ANPS member Sid Vogelpohl

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