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Shy Sapphic Violets

Viola can fertilize themselves underground and were used as a symbol of the underground lesbian culture in the yearly 20th century, thanks to Ancient Greece poetry.

We know how humans are, tending to think a little human-centered, like every pretty flower is meant for their sight and enjoyment. But us quiet violets can attest otherwise, not that we’d ever loudly point it out. Too modest for that. Sometimes, we aren't even for the bees to cast a gaze on.

But we are flowers of subtlety, often bowed down a bit as well to hide from the world, yet we were well known to a long long long time (ago) friend and poet Sappho of 600 BCE in young eastern Greece. Specifically, Sappho took refuge on the island of Lesbos (so east it's nearly in Turkey) and just from these names, most can guess the nature of her prolific poetry & fame. Sappho often wrote of romantic and even steamy love between women. Of over 10,000 lines of poetry once known from her pen, only 650 have survived the many surges of misogynistic and/or anti-queer efforts through history. Sappho must be why female same-sex couples have their own term on top of “gay”. What if there was also a well olive-oiled Roman man writing similar poetry next door in Italy. Sorry, the mind wonders... Fun fact- those folks still from the island Lesbos (Lesvos) tried at court to claim the "lesbian" back in 2008. No dice!

by Özgür Mülazımoğlu, Lesvos Island from Turkey

But what does this queer Greek poetry have to do with us violets? What makes us “sapphic”? Well our dear artsy gal-pal was also a big nature lover. I mean, if you’ve seen Greece, you can’t help but love nature, right? Sappho has many botanical references even in the small proportion of her lyrics still left.

“Many crowns of violets, roses, crocuses

… together you set before more and many scented wreaths

made from blossoms around your soft throat…

with pure, sweet oil… you anointed me,

and on a soft, gentle bed…you quenched your desire…”

Sappho refers to purple and violet blossoms multiple times, giving the color early connection to the gay community and Violets eventually became a symbol of “sapphic love”. In 1920s it was reinforced through the play “The Captive” when a character sends a fellow female character a bouquet of violets in a seeming nod to Sappho. Eventually our Viola flowers gained a cemented connection to those Lesbians and then the little-L “lesbians” of 21st century society.

Viola adunca, early blue violet from Washington
by David, Stonewall Inn, New York Ctiy

We do also approve of the term “evening botanist” being a reference to gay men, since one of the early New York City gay bars was called The Flower Pot. I bet there were some violets out front- we go so well in urban containers. If you’re interested in some other fellow flower folks associated with the queer community, there’s a nice article with other examples. "Four Flowering Plants Decidedly Queer".

There’s also a creation story in Ancient Greek mythology about the lover (named Attis) of the Mother Goddess Cybele and how his... actions... created violets. We'll leave it at that because it’s… it’s not PG13 enough for us to cover details, even if it is one interesting explanation for our existence. Maybe it stems from us sometimes one of the first flowers seen in spring time.

But moving on from origins and the “one with violets in her lap” (Sappho), there are some other Viola-interesting details you may want to hear about. I guess it's easy to first talk about others as a step to overcoming my shyness. Alright, I'm ready- picturing everyone in their underwear now.

My Viola kin, of the Violaceae family, are distinguished by 5-petal bilaterally symmetric flowers, often heart-shaped leaves and are low-growing from short rhizomes. And notably, these species are among the few plants that make exploding fruits, the few outbursts you’ll ever hear from us. Some violets have a seed also adapted for myrmecochory (being collected and dispersed by ants) aka- diaspore seeds, using tasty fatty attachments like an ant-bribe, called elaiosomes. Makes you want to play Scrabble, doesn’t it? (Read more) Just wait. Violets are a bit, how you may say- self-shy. We use several drastic measures to escape far, even from our own parents, and sometimes mates.

Those prying botanists found yet another method of pollination among our Viola clan a few years ago. We often have some of the usual chasmogamous flowers, which are those that are fully open and available for pollinators to visit, as well as cleistogamous flowers, which never open at all for pollinators to visit. Instead these isolated blooms use only self-fertilization among the dark enfolding petals, making sure their reproductive needs are taken care of all on their own. It lacks the introduction of new and potentially adaptive genes from another member of the same species, but sometime that’s just not needed. These cleistogamous (“closed off”) flowers are often underground, since they didn’t need any above ground pollinator and yet still produce viable seed, These are typically coming and going in summer or fall after the open chasmogamous flowers have had their chance to make some babies. Recently one Viola species has been found to lack the closed cleistogamous flowers- a new kind of modern woman. Instead of un-openable flowers, she closes the chasmogamous flower’s prudent petals at night, and can self-fertilized during that time as well. Even these saucy open breeders among other species are initially quite bashful, only partly opening on their first day, then slightly more on the next and the next throughout their pollination-reception.

by Internet Archive Book Images, illustration of Viola structures

Visitors of bumblebees, honey and solitary bee, hover flies and beeflies may come calling on the chasmogamous blossoms. These tend to also be more generalist pollinators and can be bringing pollen in from a previous tryst with a different species. See why we like the option of clonal self-fertilization?

she closes the chasmogamous flower’s prudent petals at night

There was a day, probably among your grandparent’s prime, that violets were a hit houseplant. Before “trending” was a thing, they were trendy, collected, and even showcased. Not that we aren’t anymore, of course we still are but some other flowers have taken more of the spotlight. We’ll surely keep our little section of attention. Look how cute and fuzzy we are! So vibrant in colors too, yet also demure and enduring, some even quite hardy.

There may be over 300 species of Viola in North America and hundreds more beyond. About 30 are native among the Pacific Northwest, up on mountains and down in lowlands, in wet bogs and out in the dry open prairies. And they even have edible flowers, excluding yellow flowered species by some authorities. The leaves are not as edible with some species having high levels of saponins (aka- soapy molecules). But they also have some medicinal properties and can be added to soup as a thickener with those that have more mucilage (and less soap).

The following are some of the most commonly encountered in our PNW area:

Viola adunca (early blue violet)

- Blueish purple flowers with pale throats, and somewhat triangular leaves. Up to 4” (10 cm)

- Found in moist woodlands under shade or out in lowland exposed prairies in full sun where the soil is moist enough.

- Leaves are a food for Oregon’s endangered silverspot butterfly (Argynnis zerene hippolyta).

Viola praemorsa (prairie violet) {possibly a variety of V. nuttallii because they are so similar}

- Yellow flowers with brown-purple veins on lower petals, leaves are upright very fuzzy, thicker, and elongated triangular shaped and less noticeable toothing. Up to 6” (18 cm).

- Found in dry meadows, shrub-steppe and forest of the North Cascades.

Viola sempervirens (evergreen violet)

- Yellow flowers with purple stripes on lower petals and broad thick leaves with rounded leaf margin toothing and purple spots underneath, plus stay through winter. Up to 2” (5 cm).

- Found in moist woodlands from low to mid-elevations across the PNW to CA, and east into ID & AK.

- Host for many fritillary butterfly species

Viola palustris (marsh violet)

- White to very pale lilac flowers with purple veins on lower petals, broad leaves with rounded toothing. Up to 2” (5 cm)

- Found in both lowland and subalpine wet meadow or bog habitats through most of WA and OR, and north into British Columbia and south to northern CA.

by Priit Tammets

Viola arvensis (European field pansy)- Non-native

- Small yellow lower petals and blue-violet upper petals with darker purple sepals and stems, but can also be mostly cream petals with yellow-orange throat and green sepals. Leaves are very different, being long and narrow with humping leaf margins, lower leaves are round. Up to 1’ (30 cm).

- Found in disturbed areas usually in lowland dry and open landscapes, so far mostly around the Puget Sound in WA.

Have you spied any of these relatives from my diverse little sweeties? No matter where you are, you are fairly likely in any spring to see their bright bowed faces; faces filled with quiet secrets behind a kindly smile. Keep an eye out and a careful step. Sometimes we're next to a babbling snow-melt fed stream on a mountainside, sometimes easily under a foot step. Safest tucked between two rocks along a slope, I'd say.


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