This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Viola Sagittata, Aiton
Smoothish or hairy; leaves on short and margined, or the later often on long and naked petioles, varying from oblong heart-shaped to halberd-shapcd, arrow-shaped, oblong-lanceolate or ovate, denticulate, sometimes cut-toothed near the base; the lateral, or occasionally all the (pretty large purple-blue) petals bearded; spur short and thick; stigma beaked. (Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States. See also Chapman's Flora of the Southern United States, and Wood's Class-Book of Botany.)
IOLETS have always been associated with our ideas of early spring. There is scarcely a poet who thinks of spring but refers to the Violets in connection therewith. Says Mrs. Southey:"Spring, summer, autumn! Of all three, Whose reign is loveliest there? Oh! is not she who paints the ground, When its frost fetters are unbound, The fairest of the fair?
"I gaze upon her violet beds,
Laburnums golden-tress'd, Her flower-spiked almonds; breathe perfume From lilac and syringa bloom,
And cry, 'I love spring best!' "
Shakespeare, in making the Duchess of Gloster congratulate her son Aumerle on his being created Duke of Rutland, puts these words into her mouth: "Welcome, my son! Who are the violets now That strew the green lap of the new-come spring?"
And similar allusions to the Violet, as one of the earliest of spring flowers, are very common in the writings of the best authors. Of course these passages refer to the Violet of the Old World, which is not a native of the United States; but most of the poetic associations with the classic Violet are applicable to many of our own species. As regards earliness, our present species may well claim to be admitted as a contestant. The Viola cucullata, or Common Blue Violet, has earned the popular name of "Early Blue Violet," but it is questionable whether in a close average, drawn under equal circumstances, the Arrow-leaved Violet would not be awarded the palm. In the vicinity of Philadelphia, it particularly delights to grow on the dry slopes formed by decaying rocks of mica schist, and it is but seldom that those who go out to gather wild flowers after a few warm days at the end of March, or early in April, and who visit these sunny, sheltered spots, return without at least a few Arrow-leaved Violets. Besides being early, it is also continuous. Our drawing was made from a specimen gathered near Philadelphia in May. The flowers often grow larger than those we have chosen for illustration, and in the richness of their blue probably exceed those of all our other species of violets.
One might suppose, from the name "Arrow-leaved Violet," that the leaves would afford a fair, distinctive mark; but these organs often resemble a spoon as much as an arrowhead, and there are, indeed, some other species which have sagittate leaves more frequently than this one. Again, the leaves are often very hairy, and this is especially the case in plants growing on high, dry ground, while in damp situations the leaves are generally quite smooth. Indeed, in most plants the form, or the hairiness of leaves is not relied on now as an exact character in determining species; but these points are useful, in connection with other characters, if we do not forget that they are variable. Although the leaves are not always like an arrow-head, the base is generally abruptly drawn in to form the petiole, - more so than in the other species one is likely to meet with in the early spring season, - and the flower-stems have generally an erect habit, and extend above the leaves, while the Common Blue Violet, with which the Arrow-leaved Violet is most likely to be confounded by beginners in collecting, has the flower-stalks shorter than the leaves. Though the Violet is essentially a spring flower, "The youth of primy Nature, Forward, not permanent; sweet, not lasting! The perfume and suppliance of a minute, No more," as Laertes tells us in "Hamlet," it by no means ceases to bloom in a certain way, but continues to produce seed-vessels during most of the summer season. The flowers which appear in early spring are complete, that is to say, they have not only the organs of generation, but the petals are also perfectly developed, while those which are of later growth produce seeds from apeta-lous buds, often under ground, and are called "cleistogamic." Although the name for this kind of flower is new, the fact of their existence has been known for many years. Salmon, a writer in the time of Queen Anne, nearly two hundred years ago, says: "The flower of the Violet consists of five leaves, with a short tail. After these, come forth round seed-vessels, standing likewise on their short footstalks, in which is contained round white seed; but these heads rise out from the stalks on which the flowers grew (as is usual in all other plants), but apart by themselves, and being sown, will produce others like unto itself." It is quite probable that it was in the Violets that this strange peculiarity was first noticed; but within the past twenty years, quite a large list of plants with these interesting flowers has been made out. The whole subject has become one of deep study since the writings of Mr. Darwin appeared. It is supposed that the colors of flowers have the purpose of attracting insects, so that pollen may be brought to one plant from another; but the complete flowers of the Violet seem rarely to produce seed. Prof. Goodale says in his "Wild Flowers" that the Viola sagittata was never known by him to have seeds from the complete flowers, nor does the writer of this remember to have seen any. The same thing, however, has been believed in relation to some English species; but Mr. Darwin says it is a mistake, as he has seen some fruit in a few cases.
Another very interesting observation has been made in connection with the scattering of the seeds. The capsule is three-valved, and when the seed has matured in all the valves, the latter contract, pressing the grains of seed, which then fly out as a bean flies from between the fingers when pinched. There is a popular prejudice in some parts of England that the Violet "breeds fleas," and this, no doubt, originated from the brown seeds being ejected in the way described. The seeds are about the size of a flea, and any one not looking close enough at the plant to notice the seeds as they are ejected, would be very likely to take the "jumping creature" for a veritable flea.
So far as our observation extends, the Arrow-leaved Violet grows in the Northern States, in open fields or hillsides, in rather dry places; but as we go South, it seems to prefer damp situations. The place of growth seems in some measure to influence its character. Dr. Willis says, in his "Catalogue of New Jersey Plants," that it is generally "slightly pubescent (hairy or downy) when growing in dry soil, and entirely smooth when growing in damp places." Situation and external circumstances often influence form, but frequently there are laws which cause changes quite independent of anything external.
Violets abound in our country, but yet the individual species have a circumscribed limit in many instances. Thus Chapman says of the species to which this article is devoted, that within the area covered by his "Flora of the Southern United States" it is chiefly confined to the upper districts. Its chief territory seems to be Canada and the more northern Atlantic States, and from there west to Michigan, sweeping thence southerly to Arkansas and Florida.