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Speaking of Nature

What’s the deal with violets?

Well, for one thing, they make a great Mother’s Day gift

With the arrival of spring, I am quite certain that you kids out there are jumping for joy. Finally gym class can be held outside! Softball, soccer, kickball and Frisbee are now on the table once again and it feels good to run and play in the fresh air. And, of course, as every child knows, there are flowers to look at.

Most fields have dandelions in them at one point or another. Picking one of the slender, straw-like stems with a bright-yellow blossom on top is one of those outdoor activities that every kid tries at least once. I can remember taking dandelion flowers and trying to shoot them at my friends by popping them off their stems with my thumbs.

Assessing one’s affinity for butter with the aid of a buttercup flower can also be a fascinating pursuit, though you really do have to keep records of the results if they are to have any scientific significance. If no records are kept, you can only see the results as only anecdotal evidence; a pitfall of many a childhood experiment.

There are all sorts of flowers to look at in schoolyard lawns, but one of my personal favorites to find was always a violet. These flowers tend to grow in moist areas at the edges of woods and they don’t last too long. Finding them, however, is just the beginning of the adventure.

With over 40 species in the Northeast, violets are one of the largest groups of wildflowers that we have. The other thing that can be very confusing is the color of the flowers. From art class we all know that violet is a shade of purple. So it makes sense that a flower called a violet would have a purple flower, right?

Well, it turns out that many violets are indeed purple, but there are many other species that have non-purple flowers. Some are purplish shades of blue and others are so un-purplish that they are actually blue. Still others are white and there are even a few species that have yellow flowers. From art class we remember that yellow is the complimentary color to purple, which is basically saying that it is the exact opposite. So what’s the deal?

Well, it turns out that violets are actually fairly widespread across the globe. There are 400 to 500 species that can be found mainly in the northern hemisphere. There are even a species or two that call distant places like Hawaii home. But, the most famous of all violets — the African violet — isn’t even really a violet. Instead of growing in northern temperate forests, the African violet is a resident of southern hemisphere cloud forests in Tanzania.

But all of this is a little too much information, don’t you think? Instead of getting sidetracked by the complexity of the violet family, we should be enjoying the beauty of these flowers. This is especially important now that Mother’s Day is just around the corner.

Violets have long been associated with mothers and motherhood, so I think it would be especially nice if you made your mother a card or a picture with a violet on it somewhere. To do this you will need dark green and light green (for the stems and leaves) and some purple, blue, or even yellow for the flowers. If your art teacher has interesting paper to work with, you could even draw your picture on colored paper and use white colored pencil for a white violet.

Whatever you decide to do I hope you will take a photo of your project and send it to me so I can post it on the kids’ page of my website.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. His Speaking of Nature column runs weekly in The Recorder, except for the first Thursday of each month, which is when his Kids and Critters column for young readers appears. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit

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