Even Violets Need a Plan B
Written and Photographed by Juliet Blankespoor
The little blue edible flowers of common blue violet are a welcome sight in our garden in early spring, as my fleuravorous daughter loves to feed the sweet little flowers to our family, passersby, and her miniature menagerie. Most people are familiar with the violet genus (Viola spp., Violaceae), readily identifying the group by their typically heart shaped leaves and distinctive flowers.
However, I would venture to say that most people are not familiar with violets second kind of flowers, which grow hidden underground, never opening their petals to the light of day. These cleistogamous flowers (the root of cleistogamy comes from the Greek words cleistos, which means closed, and gamos, meaning marriage; thus cleistogamy translates to closed marriage) never open to pollinator or breeze, yet produce viable seeds. The white violet cleistogamous flower pictured here will never turn blue, as there is no need to attract a pollinator.
The fruits develop underground and release their seeds directly into the soil or close to the surface. Pictured below are the seeds from a cleistogamous violet flower. Fairies have been known to gather up these iridescent seeds and string them into necklaces, much as humans employ freshwater pearls for adornment.
Cleistogamous flowers are in a closed relationship with themselves (I think I know some two legged mammals liked that) versus the ubiquitous free-loving chasmogamous flowers (open-marriage) that freely share their DNA with many individuals within their species. I never conceptualized the typical flower as such a swinger until I pondered the chastity of the cleistogamous lifestyle. Chasmogamous flowers have evolved as the dominant form of floral reproduction because they favor genetic exchange between members of the species, which ultimately strengthens the diversity within the gene pool.
So why do this cryptic non-gene-pool-strengthening-of questionable-moral-character thing? Because even violets need a plan B! What if slugs come along and eat all your flowers, or a seven-year-old girl picks all your flowers for her mini doll wild foods tea party? Behold the picture below, and you will understand the evolutionary pressures violets have faced for millennia. Are you telling me you wouldn’t make a few hidden flowers when faced with similar danger?
Cleistogamy has evolved independently in many members of unrelated plant families, such as violets (Violaceae), rushes (Juncaceae), legumes (Fabaceae), and grasses (Poaceae). Its easy to spy on the cleistogamous flowers and fruit of the common blue violet (Viola sororia, Violaceae); simply pull away the dirt from the base of a plant in summer or fall and you will see the white or green colored cleistogamous reproductive structures. Break open a precious fruit if you have the heart, and take a close look at the seeds, which bear a little white protruding structure, called an elaiosome. What in the heck is an elaiosome?
Meet The Green Mastermind Behind Blog Castanea:
JULIET BLANKESPOOR is the founder, primary instructor, and Creative Director of the Chestnut School of Herbal Medicine, an online school serving thousands of students from around the globe. She's a professional plant-human matchmaker and bonafide plant geek, with a degree in botany and over 30 years of experience teaching and writing about herbalism, medicine making, and organic herb cultivation. Juliet’s lifelong captivation with medicinal weeds and herb gardening has birthed many botanical enterprises over the decades, including an herbal nursery and a farm-to-apothecary herbal products business.
These days, she channels her botanical obsession through her writing and photography in her online programs, on her personal blog Castanea, and in her new book, The Healing Garden: Cultivating and Handcrafting Herbal Remedies. Juliet and her family reside in a home overrun with houseplants and books in Asheville, North Carolina.
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30 thoughts on “Even Violets Need a Plan B”
I appreciate this article. I found it because I saw my first underground violet flower seed pod open with black seeds exposed and I wanted to know more. Now I am seeing more of these flowers above ground, turning darker in color, still closed with maturing seeds inside. Have you ever seen them above ground? It seems they do pop up before fully developed, at least in some cases. Thanks for sharing!
Meghan Gemma says:
Hi Julia, I’ve seen them close to the surface, sometimes just peeking through the soil, but mostly underground. Their nature is subterranean, so I’m not sure what occasionally brings them up for air!
Great article! I just felt a spark go off inside and now suddenly I feel so drawn towards violets. I didn’t know about violet’s medicinal properties before this class. I have had violet candy, violet mexican gum, and of course there’s perfume but I never knew this flower had benefits. Definitely curious about it now! Thanks much!!!!:)
Blake Evans says:
What season do the seeds mature and disperse into the soil? When is an appropriate time for an herbalist to investigate these fruits to see the seeds ripening?
Sarah Sorci says:
Hi Blake! In this article, Juliet notes, “simply pull away the dirt from the base of a plant in summer or fall and you will see the white or green colored cleistogamous reproductive structures.” The fruits and seeds will form after the flowers, and the timing will depend on your location and agricultural zone. I would expect seeds to form earlier in the season in warmer climates, whereas I would wait until fall in the northeastern US to start hunting for fruits and seeds.
barbara lopez says:
the violet is New Jerseys state flower. I have always loved them. I’m surprised the underground seeds have no medicinal value.
Sara Kinney says:
They’re beautiful flowers! It’s not uncommon for one part of a plant to have medicinal qualities while another does not, or is even poisonous. We know this from potatoes – the tuber is edible but the leaves are poisonous.
Thank you, this is such a beautiful and informative article. I have some flowers in my community garden, that look like that, and I keep pulling them because they spread very fast. I will check out, if they are truly violets, and if they are, I will make some herbal medicine from them and treat them with more respect. 🙂
Juliet Blankespoor says:
I’m glad this article has given you more appreciation for violets! Be well 🙂
Are the underground flowers ediblewith the seeds
Christine Borosh says:
The underground flowers are not edible in the same way as the regular violet flowers. Stick with the above ground violet leaves and flowers for food and medicine use!
Eleni Christoforatou says:
Great article! As for the etymology of the Greek word cleistogamus is in fact cleistos which means closed and gamos which means marriage.
Juliet Blankespoor says:
Thanks for that clarification 🙂 I updated the translation.
I so enjoy the way you share information and your writing style. Your photos are beautiful and i am in awe with this underground violet activity. Thank you for sharing this.
Juliet Blankespoor says:
Thanks, love! My pleasure 🙂 And glad that there are people out there who revel in underground floral activity 😉
Al Stahler says:
Eliasome – “oil body” (think “oleo”) – The eliasomes I’m familiar with occur on the seeds of Scotch Broom – a tiny white nubbin on the end of each seed. Delicious to ants, which haul the seeds away, eat the eliasomes, and leave the intact seeds some distance from the parent plant. Clever.
Thanks for the neat cleistogamous flower story – I’ve wanted to see those things – will look this summer.
REALLY interesting. I will definitely do a little digging this summer and check it out!
Juliet, you are amazing. Combining visually alluring photography, with insightful, interesting information, in a easily digestible story-telling manner. And words! Newfangled (fleuravorous) with oldfangled (chasmogamous, I didn’t know that one). Your writing and photography continually plumb new depths, we readers are very fortunate to have you in our midst.
Jessica Snow says:
Second, third, and fourthed. Excellent for all of these reasons. I was titillated, truly!!! Thank you 🙂
Jennifer Dunham says:
What a timely article….I have to thank Patricia DeMarco for drawing my attention to your article. It is timely because I am working on a piece for an art exhibit with the theme “Underground”. I am also working on certification as a botanical illustrator….Viola! (or, violet) a perfect match.
Thank you for this information. I potted up some violets from my garden a couple of weeks ago and noticed these seed pods unfurling from beneath the soil and exploding a day or two later. I had never noticed this before and your post was so helpful.
Steph McCollum says:
Beautiful photos and amazing information! Thank you so much for sharing that with us!
Robin Rose Bennett says:
Great post, Juliet,
and I’m right there with you…
turning people on to these secret violet flowers has been one of my most favorite fun things to do for many years now…aren’t the seed pods too amazing???
thanks for the botanical terms education, too!
I’m looking forward to seeing you and y’all next month in NC! Green blessings
John Davidson says:
What a delight this informative piece is! I’m currently apprenticed to a terrific herbalist in the Central Idaho Mountains, and have been absolutely humbled by the magnificent array of medicinal – not to mention edible – plant life that abounds here. I look forward to getting your posts, and am so glad Henriette shared this gem!
Jennie Woodard says:
lovely, thank you.
Robyn Klein says:
Oh wow. What a GREAT story! I’m adding it for submission to AskNature because humans could mimic this design strategy for disaster planning, resilient cities and maybe even financial safety methods. I love nature!
You caught me red-handed as i Do pick all the flowers on my sweet & parma violets for my perfume ‘industry’! I thought i knew my floral friends pretty well but you certainly have given me much insight… wonderful article!
Many thanks for your sharing this : )