Bird’s-Foot Violet


by Tony Avent
illustration by Ippy Patterson

At some time in most gardeners’ lives, they become enchanted with violets. Some with well-behaving violets, and others with the less-stellar members of the clan. I, for one, have always had a tenuous love-hate relationship with violets.

As a child, I remember long days pulling the weedy violet Viola odorata from my father’s iris beds. Then I remember cursing under my breath when this difficult-to-eradicate weed mysteriously returned just days later. I would come to understand that my childhood nemesis, and many other violets, reproduces via cleistogamus flowers. These flowers set seed without ever opening, and don’t even need to be pollinated. An incredibly devious plan of garden attack.

Over subsequent decades, other gardeners shared their favorite violet species with me, all arriving with the assurance that they weren’t weedy like Viola odorata.

I watched them all, carefully noting as each one began an assault to take over my garden. One by one, I launched a shock-and-awe counterstrike until all were obliterated. With each new violet I tried, my level of distrust of the genus viola intensified, leading to a severe case of violet neurosis.

Despite this fear, I knew there were well-behaved members of the genus viola. One only need look at the popular winter annual Viola × wittrockiana, a group of hybrid violas including species like Viola tricolor, Viola lutea, and Viola altaica, which are ubiquitous in gardening circles under a common name: pansy.  If I had been into planting annuals, pansies would certainly have been acceptable violas, but where was that well-behaving perennial violet?

Finally, a viola caught my attention that was growing at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum lath house where I used to volunteer. It was our North Carolina native Viola pedata – commonly known as bird’s-foot violet.  I watched this tiny clump for years. This amazing violet never entertained thoughts of garden domination. Instead, it sat right there, flowering its head off. A perennial viola had finally won me over, and now I would return the favor by telling the world about this great plant.

But first, I wanted to learn more about Viola pedata, so in my subsequent plant travels across the United States, I always kept an eye out for populations of bird’s-foot violet. I was thrilled to learn that Viola pedata was native to every state east of the Mississippi River except Florida, which turns out to be an odd twist, since Florida nurseries now produce more commercial Viola pedata than all of the other states combined.

I learned many things about bird’s-foot violet as I visited it around the country. Most notably, I learned that it’s not a very social violet, and detests competition from other larger plants. It also usually grows in rocky, well-drained, nutrient-poor soil, and is often one of the first plants to colonize newly cut roads.

Half-day sun seemed to be its preference, as it tended to die out when exposed to either full sun all day or too much shade.  The flower color range of Viola pedata I saw was truly amazing: everything from dark violet to blue; from pure white to amazing bi-color flowers.

Viola pedata is a delightfully cute but tiny plant, forming a tight rosette that is barely visible in winter and in the growing season, and never grows more than three inches tall by six inches wide.  Consequently, bird’s-foot violet needs a special spot in the garden, or it can be grown in a small patio container.  The tiny, cutleaf green foliage looks exactly like the foot of a bird, hence the common name.

Viola pedata is topped with tiny clusters of flowers in March and April as it celebrates the end of winter and beginning of spring.  Commercially, the only form that you’re likely to find is a lovely bi-color-flowered selection made by the late Georgia plantsman Don Jacobs.  It’s our hope that as more people discover this lovely plant, more colored flower forms will hit the commercial market. In the meantime, I hope more people will become acquainted with this amazing North Carolina native.