Gateway to the Classics: Wild-Flower Study by Anna Botsford Comstock
Wild-Flower Study by  Anna Botsford Comstock


The Long-spurred violet.   Color of flowers, pale lavender.

Photo by Verne Morton.

The Violet

Teacher's Story

It is interesting to note the flowers which have impinged upon the imagination of the poets; the violet more than most flowers has been loved by them, and they have sung in varied strains of its fragrance and lowliness.

Browning says:

"Such a starved bank of moss,

'Till that May morn,

Blue ran the flash across;

Violets were born."

And Wordsworth sings:

"A violet by a mossy stone,

Half hidden from the eye;

Fair as a star, when only one

Is shining in the sky."

And Barry Cornwall declares that the violet

"Stands first with most, but always with the lover."

But Shakespeare's tribute is the most glowing of all, since the charms of both the goddesses of beauty and of love are made to pay tribute to it:

"Violets dim, but sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes, or Cytherea's breath."

However, the violets go on living their own lives, in their own way, quite unmindful of the poets. There are many different species, and they frequent quite different locations. Some live in the woods, others in meadows and others in damp, marshy ground. They are divided into two distinct groups—those where the leaf-stems come directly from the root, and those where the leaves come from a common stem, the latter being called the leafy-stemmed violets. Much attention should be given to sketching and studying the leaf accurately of the specimens under observation, for the differences in the shapes of the leaves, in many instances, determine the species; in some cases the size and shape of the stipules determines the species; and whether the leaves and stems are downy or smooth is another important characteristic. In the case of those species where the leaves spring from the root, the flower stems rise from the same situation; but in the leafy-stemmed violets the flower stems come off at the axils of the leaves. In some species the flower stems are long enough to lift the flowers far above the foliage, while in others they are so short that the flowers are hidden.


Common blue violet, showing two of the little flowers which never open, lying between the bare rootstocks. Note the three-valved seed capsules.

Photo by Verne Morton.

The violet has five sepals and their shape and length is a distinguishing mark. There are five petals, one pair above, one at each side, and a broad lower petal which gives the bees and butterflies a resting place when they are seeking nectar. This lower petal is prolonged backward into a spur which holds the nectar.

The spur forms the nectary of the violet, and in order to reach the sweet treasure, which is at the rearmost point of the nectary, the insect must thrust its tongue through a little door guarded by both anthers and pistil; the insect thus becomes laden with pollen, and carries it from flower to flower. In many of the species, the side petals have at their bases a little fringe which forms an arch over the door or throat leading to the nectary. While this is considered a guard to keep out undesirable insects like ants, I am convinced that it is also useful in brushing the pollen from the tongues of the insect visitors.


The Canada white violet, a leafy-stemmed species.

Photo by Verne Morton.

Some species of violets are very fragrant, while others have little odor. The color of the anthers also differs with different species. The children should be interested in watching the development of the seeds from the flower. The seed-pods are three-lobed, each one of these lobes dividing lengthwise, with a double row of seeds within. Each lobe curls back and thus scatters the seed.

At the base of most of the species of violets can be found the small flowers which never open; they have no petals, but within them the pollen and the pistil are fully developed. The flowers seem to be developed purposely for self-pollenation, and in the botanies they are called cleistogamous flowers; in some species they are on upright stems, in others they lie flat. There is much difference in the shape of the rootstock in the different species of violet; some are delicate and others are strong, and some are creeping.


The Violet

Leading thought—Each violet flower has a well of nectar, with lines pointing to it so that the insects may find it. They also have down near their roots, flowers which never open, which are self-pollenated and develop seeds.

Method—To make this work of the greatest use and interest, each pupil should make a portfolio of the violets of the locality. This may be in the form of pressed and mounted specimens, or of water-color drawings. In either case, the leaf, leaf-stem, flower, flower stem, and rootstock should be shown, and each blossom should be neatly labelled with name, locality and date. From the nature-study standpoint, a portfolio of drawings is the more desirable, since from making the drawings the pupils become more observant of the differences in structure and color which distinguish the species. Such a portfolio may be a most beautiful object; the cover of thick cardboard may have an original, conventionalized design made from the flowers and leaves of the violets. Each drawing may be followed by a page containing notes by the pupil and some appropriate quotation from botany, poetry or other literature.


1. Describe the locality and general nature of the soil where the violet was found. That is, was it in the woods, dry fields or near a stream?

2. Sketch or describe the shape of the leaf, paying particular attention to its margin and noting whether it is rolled toward the stem at its base. Is the petiole longer or shorter than the leaf? Does the leaf stem spring directly from the root, or does it branch from another? If the latter, are the leaves opposite or alternate? Is there a stipule where the leaf joins the main stem? If so, is it toothed on the edge?

3. What is the color of the leaf above? Are the leaves and stems downy and velvety, or smooth and glossy?

4. Does the flower stem come from the root of the plant, or does it grow from the main stem at the axil of the leaf? Are the flower stems long enough to lift the flowers above the foliage of the plant?

5. How many sepals has the violet? Are they long or short; pointed or rounded? How many petals has the violet? How are they arranged? Is the lower petal shaped like the others? What is the use of this broad lower petal? Are there any marks upon it? If you should follow one of these lines, where would it lead to?

6. Look at the spur at the back of the flower. Of which petal is it a part? How long is it, compared with the whole flower? What is the use of this spur?

7. Find the door that leads to the nectar-spur and note what the tongue of the bee or butterfly would brush against when reaching for the nectar. Are the side petals which form the arch over the door that leads to the nectar fringed at their bases? If so, what is the use of this fringe?

8. What colors are the petals? Are they the same on both sides? How are they marked and veined? Are the flowers fragrant?

9. What color are the anthers? What color is the stigma? Examine a fading violet, and describe how the seed is developed from the flower.

10. Find the seed-pods of the violet. How are the seeds arranged within them? How do the pods open? How are the seeds scattered?

11. Look at the base of the violet and find the little flowers there which never open. Examine one of these flowers and find if it has sepals, petals, anthers and pistil. Are these closed flowers on upright stems or do the stems lie flat on the earth? Of what use to the plant are these little closed flowers?

12. What sort of rootstock has the violet? Is it short and thick or slender? Is it erect, oblique or creeping?

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Jack-in-the-Pulpit  |  Next: The May Apple or Mandrake
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.