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Plant of the Week: Violet, Birdsfoot

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

Plant of the Week

Birdsfoot Violet
Latin: Viola Pedata

Picture closeup of bright purple Birdsfoot Violet flowers with white centers and birdsfoot-like leaves.
Birdsfoot violet is one of the most beautiful native wildflowers, but also one of the most difficult to grow.

Native plants - especially the showy ones - have a way of migrating to our gardens where they grace the space with their delicate charm. Most Arkansas wildflowers make this transition from wild to cultivated without much difficulty.

But some defiantly remain aloof, resisting all attempts to tame them. One of these, the birdsfoot violet, is among the most beautiful spring wildflowers and also one of the most difficult to cultivate.

Birdsfoot violet (Viola pedata) is native throughout the state and common in all of the eastern states. It usually occurs in large colonies in open places in the woods or along roadside cuts where light is better. Unlike most wild violets, it only occurs where it gets at least four to six hours of light a day. It usually grows on poor, thin, acidic soil. I have found it growing on sandy knobs or on clay cuts, but when it occurs on heavier soils it seems to always be on a slope so that drainage is good.

It’s a perennial, but I suspect, a short-lived one even in nature. It produces a short, vertical rhizome and a few fine roots off of this main stem. The leaves are cut into narrow, linear segments and look like the foot of a bird, giving rise to both the common name and the species epitaph.

Like all violets, it’s a cool season plant, growing best during the cool, moist weather of late winter. In mild climates, plants are evergreen with new leaves appearing in the fall.

Plants reach about 6 inches tall when in bloom with each producing up to 20 blooms per plant. The flowers are about an inch across and flat-faced like a pansy with five petals. It occurs in three color forms. The most common is the pale lavender form, but the darker form is nearly as common.

The most beautiful of all, and certainly the least common, is the bicolored form that has two dark violet upper petals and three lighter lavender lower petals. Plants bloom from late March through early May. Seeds are ripe about a month after bloom.

This little wildflower has steadfastly resisted my efforts at taming. Other gardeners report much the same experience, at best keeping plants alive a year or two but never having much luck as establishing a self-seeding colony.

Over the years, I’ve tried plants in various flower beds, but to no avail. At the moment, I have been able to get a plant to survive and flower in a trough garden with a mixture of sand and peatmoss, but I fear even this well drained mix is too wet for it.

I’ve only tried seed germination once and so far have been unsuccessful. I treated the seeds as I do pansies, but nothing germinated. Checking the Web, there seems to be little consensus on the best procedure for germination, another indication of the demanding ways of the plant.

Some sites suggest seeds need darkness for germination. Others suggest freezing the seeds. One suggests using an overnight gibberellic acid soak.

If nature is a reliable guide, probably the seeds need a period of four to eight weeks of moist stratification in the crisper of the refrigerator. That will be my next attempt. I’ve not given up, but just once again humbled by this difficult beauty.

Birdsfoot violet is offered from several nurseries, so some growers are able to meet its specific demands. If I can get my seedlings to germinate, I plan on devoting a trough garden to just this one plant, using a specially concocted fast-draining media for the seedlings. Gardeners must be optimistic, even when experience and general consensus indicate the futility of their efforts.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - April 29, 2005


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.