Plant of the Week
Nuttall's Violet (Viola nuttallii Pursh)
By Steve Olson
The genus name for violets is Viola, which is Latin for violet colored. Unfortunately, for Nuttall’s violet, the only violet coloring are the nectar guides – purple stripes on the bright yellow petals. The flowers are on stems about the same length as the leaves, so the entire plant is about four inches tall. The flowers bloom from April through June. This species, like most other violets, produces some flowers that are cleistogamous, which self fertilize and produce seed without ever opening. The leaves are lanced shaped.
Nuttall’s violet ranges from southern Canada south through Idaho and Minnesota to New Mexico. It is a threatened species in Minnesota, where it is at the eastern edge of its distribution. It can be found from the eastern Great Plains into the montane zone of the mountains. It will inhabit dry prairie, open grasslands, bluffs, and woodlands, often in rocky situations.
The leaves and flowers of Nuttall’s violet are edible, and are high in vitamins A and C. The rhizomes , fruits, and seeds are said to be poisonous, high in saponins.
Nuttall’s violet tolerates, and may require, some grazing in mixed grass prairies. Grazing will keep vegetation from over-topping this short-statured plant.
James Nuttall, for whom Nuttall’s violet was named, was a Harvard Professor of Natural History. He also was an explorer, botanist, ornithologist, and ecologist of the western United States in the early 1800’s.
Violets are distinct enough to be in a family of their own: the Violaceae. There are 125 recognized species of the genus Viola in North America. Although it is usually simple to recognize violets, separating species can be quite difficult among certain groups within the genus.