Violets: One person’s weed another’s wildflower

What do the states of New Jersey, Rhode Island, Wisconsin and Illinois all have in common? In this politically focused world, perhaps you think they are all “blue” states or “red” states. In fact they are all “violet” states, as they have the same state flower — that’s right, the violet.

There are probably some reading this who wonder exactly who in their right mind would select a violet as a state flower and think that the only state violets should exist in is the state of extinction and that they have no place in our manicured world. Others would make a case for it, it being a rugged and attractive wildflower that dependably greets spring each year.

It is for this very reason, when the phone rings here in the Extension office and the call is about violets, I always ask first, “Are you for them or against them?”

Collectively, turf managers refer to the Midwest species common blue violet, wooly blue violet, and confederate violet all as wild violet, though some under some circumstances may use somewhat more “colorful” vocabulary to describe them. Yellow violet is also found in Indiana.

Wild violets are a persistent, perennial and difficult-to-control broadleaf plant. It is regarded as a desirable perennial plant by some and a weed by others.

This is a native perennial plant with the leaves and flowers emerging directly from the rhizomes and forming a basal rosette. A typical mature plant may be 6 inches across and 4 inches high, with the flowers slightly higher than the leaves. The leaves are individually up to 3 inches long and 3 inches across (excluding the long petioles) and vary in color from yellowish green to dark green, depending on growing conditions.

Violets can be identified by their heart-shaped leaves, which are pointed at their tip and have rounded teeth on their margins. Violets spread by short rhizomes and by seed. Short horizontally branched rhizomes are common to all Indiana wild violet species and can have a tendency to form vegetative colonies. Wild violets are typically found in shady areas with moist soil, but they can also grow in sunny, droughty areas.

While there is no noticeable floral scent, the blooming period occurs from mid to late spring and lasts about four to six weeks.

If you wish to cultivate violets, like any other plant it is key to know what conditions they prefer so they can be enhanced.

The preference of violets is partial sun or light shade and moist to average conditions, although full sun is tolerated if there is sufficient moisture.

The soil should be a rich silt loam or clay loam with above average amounts of organic matter.

Violets exposed to full sun under dry conditions will have a tendency for leaves to turn yellowish green. This reaction is normal and is not necessarily a sign of poor health. This plant is very easy to grow, and it will spread under favorable conditions. This wildflower will adapt to lawns, especially if they are not mowed too often during the spring or cut too low.

If you wish to increase wild violets in your lawn, simply reduce your lawn’s nitrogen fertilization and maintain moderate to high levels of shade by withholding pruning of trees.

One might assume that, similarly, control options would begin with an understanding of the preferences of the violet, but in this case we might select against the preferences to create a less favorable environment. Sadly, this is not necessarily true.

While cultural practices such as proper mowing, fertilization and irrigation can be manipulated to control some weed species, these practices have little impact on wild violet populations in lawns. Wild violets may be decreased by more frequent mowing but not by fertilization. It is unknown how irrigation, drainage and soil compaction influence wild violet populations. As such, successful turf managers rely on herbicides to control wild violet.

Some organic herbicides are available. Among the postemergence organic herbicides, the most common are pelargonic acid (Scythe) and acetic acid (five percent or greater solutions). Other products that contain medium-length fatty acids and clove oil (eugenol) show some promise; however, these organic postemergence herbicides are nonselective and can injure actively growing desirable plants in the lawn and landscape, so their use should be limited to directed spot treatments.

The bottom line is that most organic postemergence herbicides have limited use in turf and are better suited to weed control in parking lots, fence rows and other bare ground applications.

Good chemical control of wild violet is typically obtained with triclopyr (Turflon Ester Ultra or Triclopyr 4). Many herbicides are available with triclopyr as the key ingredient, but as temperatures rise it is very important to realize than many common broadleaf weed killers are volatile and can move with the heat of the day to damage nearby sensitive plants — yours or your neighbors’. Please read and follow the label directions.

The choice is yours … wildflower or weed…If you can’t beat them…enjoy them…Violets will be welcoming spring with their colorful delicate flowers for the foreseeable future.

Roy Ballard is an agriculture and natural resources educator with the Hancock County office of Purdue Extension ( He can be reached at 317-462-1113 or