A few years ago, a friend texted me a photo like the one below, asking me if they should pull out this plant—was it a weed?—as it was growing throughout their garden beds.
I usually define a weed as plant growing in a place where humans don’t want it.*
With that in mind, I couldn’t say if my friend would decide this was a weed, but I knew the plant well: Viola sororia, the Common Violet.
The humble and lovely violet. Viola sororia is the New Jersey State Flower and it is a plant that I find very charming. I usually don’t consider violets weeds unless they are overtaking a garden bed that is designed to maintain a tidy aesthetic. Elsewhere, I let this little plant flourish, as I find it has so much to offer.
At home, I’ve propagated Viola sororia priceana, a violet variety with variegated white and purple blooms and foliage that often grows taller and wider than the species.
Viola sororia is native to the Northeastern United States and is host plant to two beautiful butterflies, the Great Spangled Fritillary and the Variegated Fritillary.
Left to right: Varigated Fritillary Adult, Varigated Fritillary Caterpillar, Great Spangled Fritillary Adult
Host plants often provide a food source to a specific species of insect larvae. In the case of Monarch butterflies, for instance, only species of plants in the genus Asclepias (Milkweed) can nourish the Monarch larvae. Many insect larvae have similarly limited diets, and their host plants are usually native to the ecosystem in which they live. As with any flowering plant, pollinators also enjoy sipping the nectar of violets when in bloom.
When it comes to using violets in landscape design, consider the violet as an alternative to grass in low-traffic lawn areas, a shady ground cover in the spring, or along a woodland edge. As a perennial plant, violets will die back in the winter, but can create effective and full coverage during the spring growing season. Violet foliage usually fades as the weather gets warm in summer, so I recommend pairing it with another native ground cover like Asarum canadense, Wild Ginger (host plant to Pipevine Swallowtail Buttefly). The Asarum will fill in later in the spring and early summer and its foliage will persist until frost.
Other New Jersey state symbols of horticultural interest include the New Jersey State Tree, Quercus rubra,the majestic Red Oak (host to the Gray hairstreak Butterfly), and the Black Swallowtail Butterfly, was recently named the NJ State Butterfly.
Host plants for the Black Swallowtail include Zizia aurea, Golden Alexander, and Polytaenia nutallii, Prairie Parsely.
Take a look at www.jerseyyards.org for more information on host plants and what local fauna they support.
*It should be noted that the flip side of my rather cavalier definition of a “weed” is that many intentional plantings have become invasive and are creating monocultures across the globe, but that’s a discussion for another day.