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How can’t you Fall in Love with Violets?

By Marcello De Vitis

Lance-leaved Violet (Viola lanceolata) growing in the greenhouse

I have never been much acquainted with violets either from a professional or personal perspective. That is, I have never studied them or plant communities hosting them, and I have never grown them up for pleasure. The only contact I had with violets, other than occasionally spotting the weedy ones growing along the roadsides, was, back in Italy, when I watered some European field pansies (Viola arvensis) for my PhD supervisor who was studying their pollen morphology.

Then, last summer, I started working at the Chicago Botanic Garden on a project specifically aimed at investigating the seed dormancy mechanisms in three violet species native to the Midwestern US, for conservation and restoration purposes. When dispersed, violet seeds are dormant, and they won’t germinate until the dormancy is broken. My research is trying to figure out how much the genetics and the environment factor into breaking dormancy in these violets.

Seeds of arrow-leaved violet (V. sagittata) in a research collection

I started reading about the species in the genus Viola: biology, autoecology, community ecology, cultivation, restoration and so on. I also started hearing about personal experiences from colleagues, other scientists, and practitioners who have been working on them for a few years. A veil of mystery started to envelop this botanical case, as each contact I spoke with about violets seemed to be concerned with one aspect or the other of their biology, propagation and reintroduction.

As a seed biologist, I could easily conduct all of my research inside the laboratory, receiving seeds from whomever collected them, to use in my experiments. But this is not enough for me! If I can, I go outside to observe my study species in their natural context.

I am lucky to have a dear friend, an amazing botanist based in Indiana, who took me to visit several natural places in search of violets. I wanted to observe them in their natural habitat, to think more deeply about their reproduction and their relationship with the other actors and elements of their habitats.

One of the sites we visited was a patch of tallgrass prairie. Walking through this habitat, where some species of violets grow, was an additional magical element to this new adventure. Coming from Europe, I never experienced being immersed in such a wonderful community of plants. We have tall grasses and forbs, yes, but not growing all together so tall in communities such this. When I was walking through this patch of tallgrass prairie, I felt like Alice in Wonderland, being surrounded by these giant herbs. Instead of bending down on my knees to appreciate these plants, I was stretching my neck over the sky or looking over my shoulders to admire their leaves and flowers, as they were at just the same height as my gaze.

Bending down to look for tiny violets!

But I still needed to bend down on my knees…to search for the treasure of my hunt: the violets. Violets are among the tiniest in this community of giants, yet they play a fundamental role. One of their secrets? Some of these violets host the eggs and feed the caterpillars of several butterflies, and among them the threatened Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia). Violets also commonly produce seeds with an elaiosome, an appendage very much appreciated by ants. In exchange for this nutritious treat, ants move the violet seeds by taking them to their nests or in their vicinity. This helps spread the violet seeds throughout the prairie, helping them to find new places to grow. Violets can also produce two types of flowers, the ones that open during spring and are cross-pollinated by pollinators; and others self-pollinate and always remain closed.

These are just a few of the amazing characteristics of violets, and my study is still in progress as the tangle is far from being solved. But step by step, through my experiments I will hopefully be able to reveal the fascinating secrets of the violets.

Marcello in the greenhouse (photo by Stephanie Frischie)

Sometimes I stare at the violets that I am growing in the greenhouse at the Garden or in pots in my apartment, and it looks like they look back at me, with those little cute face-like flowers. Maybe they are laughing at me because I am trying to solve what is an enigma to me…but just life for them. Or maybe, if they could, they may just be happy that I am trying to understand their mysteries to better conserve them in the natural world.

Marcello is a researcher from Italy with interest in plant conservation and ecology. After getting his degrees in biological and ecological sciences between Sapienza University, Tuscia University (Italy) and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (UK), he moved to Scotland to work on an European project on native seed ecology and production for ecological restoration. Here he became a Research Associate at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and then landed in the US in September 2019 to start working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Chicago Botanic Garden. He loves solving botanical cases through his experiments to find the way to conserve threatened plant species.


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