The Common blue violet (Viola sororia) is a widespread wildflower of central and eastern North America, familiar not only on lush forest floors and glades but also in suburban lawns, city parks, busy roadsides, sidewalk cracks and overgrown lots.
It's prolific and hardy enough in turf and gardens that it frequently gets saddled with "weed" status.
But it's not a bad weed to have -- it's beautiful and it's edible!
Identifying the Common blue violet in the field is complicated by the fact that the species has a lot of variability and not everyone agrees it should be classified as a single species.
Viola sororia occasionally gets labeled as the woolly blue violet, while some other species -- (V. pratincola), as well as the broad-leaved wood violet (V. latiuscula) and the northern blue violet (V. septenrionalis), among others -- get labeled as common blue violet.
The jury still seems to be out on its taxonomy in this regard.
One recognized variety from the Southeast, the Confederate violet (V. sororia form priceana), may be an escaped cultivar; its petals are a dirty-white with violet-colored veins.
The common blue violet also reportedly hybridizes with certain other wild violets, including the marsh blue violet (V. cucullata) and southern woodland violet (V. hirsutula), further confusing the matter.
Really, though, the specifics of phenotypic variation (hairy or hairless stems, white or blue-violet flowers, etc.) don't necessarily matter in the context of foraging, since Viola sororia is only one example of many edible wild violets.
General Appearance: Viola sororia is an annual groundcover plant that may grow up to eight inches high, and often forms dense beds.
Leaves: The simple, basal leaves grow directly from the spreading underground stems or rootstocks, called rhizomes.
The deep-green leaves, often two to three inches long and wide, are heart-shaped and have a crenate margin of rounded teeth.
The tips of the lower leaves tend be more rounded, while those of upper leaves show more of a taper.
The leaves are smooth on the top and typically hairy on the underside, particularly along the veins.
The stems are also usually hairy, though violets with hairless stems are fairly common, as well.
Flower: Viola sororia's solitary flower, about three-quarters of an inch to one inch across, arises on a separate stalk (peduncle) straight from the rhizome.
It's five-petaled flower, with two white-bearded lateral petals and a lower petal that's spurred.
The color varies: As the common name suggests, the petals are usually blue or blue-violet with white throats, but they may also be white, or a mix of blue and white.
The peduncle, like the leaf stalk, may be hairy or smooth and tends to droop, so the flowers usually bend toward the ground.
They may barely rise above the leaf level, or may sometimes be overtopped by the foliage.
Sometimes this violet also has white flowers at its base, close to the ground or even below the surface a bit.
These particular violet flowers are cleistogamous (self-pollinating pods that don't bloom but come packed with seeds).
Often developing later in the season, they're essentially an insurance policy in case spring pollination fails or the normal flowers are destroyed.
The round seeds are ejected explosively from the seedpod, and are often further disseminated by ants, which gather them to feast on their nutrient-rich coating.
Range & Habitat
Common blue violets grow across an extensive geographic range in central and eastern North America and into northeastern Mexico.
They thrive in a variety of habitats, including forests and woodlands ranging from mesic to fairly dry, as well as moist meadows, tallgrass prairies and riparian communities.
They're often seen right along trails, and of course in more developed landscapes, including road embankments, cultivated gardens, lawns, city parks, and neglected, weedy urban spaces.
It's the leaves and the flowers of common blue violet you're after from a harvesting standpoint; these are the edible parts (the roots can cause intestinal upset).
It's possible to get multiple harvests of the leaves.
As with many plants, you want the more tender young leaves -- not the tough older foliage.
This means prime plucking time is early and mid-spring, but that's not the only window.
During the summer, you may find violets producing new leaves where older ones have been eaten or mowed, and there's sometimes a fresh flush of new foliage in the fall.
Violet flowers, meanwhile, tend to appear between March and June depending on location.
When harvesting, be selective, plucking or snipping the young leaves and the flowers while leaving behind the stalks and the older, coarser leaves.
And only gather the normal, five-petaled violet flowers, not those white, ground-level cleistogamous ones.
As always, be judicious about where you forage for edible violets.
You can readily find them in many urban and suburban areas within their range, but don't harvest in spots that may be subject to spraying or could have contaminated soil.
The leaves of the common blue violet have wide applicability in the kitchen: They can be used as a substitute for just about any leafy green, whether they're eaten raw or cooked.
You can incorporate them into salads or sandwiches, or steam or sauté them for any number of dishes.
They don't have a particularly strong or striking flavor, but can be zested up with salt, pepper, or dressing, and they're rich in vitamins A and C.
Violet flowers, also a source of vitamin C, offer their own culinary possibilities, though their flavor on its own is best described as "bland."
They can be used as edible garnish on salads and cakes, turned into candies or jellies, or crushed to color sugar.