Most violets in Western Washington are not “violet,” but yellow. And, while many are also confusingly similar in appearance, the pioneer violet (Viola glabella) is one that is fairly easy to identify. It is also one of the most photogenic violets, squinting out of the woodland shadows with expressive blooms often perched elegantly atop leafy ruffs. Collectively, its distinguishing features are its yellow blooms, tender, clear green, deciduous leaves, and tall, upright form (for a violet).
Like all violets, including domestic pansies, pioneer violets bear blooms in the classic violet form that consists of two upright petals, two side petals, and one lower petal that acts as a landing pad for pollinators. Pioneer violets have purple stripes or “whiskers” pencilled on the lower petal and two side petals, sometimes extending onto the upright petals. The whiskers are not to be confused with the short “beard” of hair-like structures that is usually visible on the side petals. (Click any of these photos to enlarge it and view the stripes and beards on these specimens.) Both the whiskers and beards are believed to guide pollinators into the bloom, combining a visual runway with “handholds” to grasp onto the otherwise flattened floral surface. Pioneer violets display significant variation in petal shape, from rounded “mouse ears” to elongated “rabbit ears.” After the petals drop off, globose seed capsules form and eventually pop open, scattering the seeds of the next generation. (Note the fresh seed capsule in the photo above.)
Pioneer violets have distinctly heart-shaped leaves, notched between two rounded lobes on the stem end and terminating in an often notably pointed tip. The leaves are sometimes elongated and swoop into a dramatic curve, as in the specimen at right, creating a “reniform” (kidney) or paisley shape. However, they are never arrow-shaped, diamond-shaped, or divided, as found on similar species that occur within its range. They generally have rounded teeth along the edges. The leaves are a brighter green than those of many other violets, without the purplish or silvery overtones that lend deeper or paler hues to the foliage of some species. In texture, the deeply veined leaves are fairly smooth, but may be sparsely lined with fine hairs. Again, click on the photos to view the varying degrees of fuzziness.
Pioneer violets are perennial and die back to the ground each year, emerging anew in the spring from slender rhizomes, or, underground stems that sprout leaves above and roots below. They grow in clumps of multiple stems, each thin with sparsely spaced leaves, but creating a bushy effect overall. Reaching up to 12 inches/30 cm or more, they are the tallest of the Western Washington violets. (Most others, including all the other local yellow violets, have a creeping or ground-hugging form.) Pioneer violets are found from low to mid elevation in moist, usually sheltered areas in conifer or mixed forest, although they sometimes surprisingly appear in mountainside meadows. They also have a broad distribution, ranging from northeastern Asia into the Pacific Northwest from Alaska south to the California Sierra Nevadas and east into Alberta and Montana.
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