Coming Soon: Blooming Blue Violets

Master Naturalist Patrick Kyle is back on the blog with more about these tiny darlings, native to our parts.

Patrick Kyle

Are they Early Blue Violets (Viola adunca), Great-spurred Violets (Viola selkirkii), Bog Violets (Viola nephrophylla), Marsh violets (Viola palustris) or Crowfoot Violets (Viola pedatifida)? These violets all have blue flowers, so how can we tell the difference?

Violet panel copy

Can you identify these violets?

Location or habitat to start with. If you are not in a fen or marsh you can rule out the Bog and Marsh Violets. Unusually for violets, Crowfoot Violet grows in dry habitats, such as prairies or at the edge of aspen groves. Early Blues also favour drier habitats including sandy soil.

Look at the shape of the leaves. Crowfoot Violets have a very distinctive leaf shape: their basal leaves are cleft almost to their base, with each segment further cleft into 2 to 4 lobes, resembling crow’s feet, hence the common name. Though you already know this if you read my early blog on the Crowfoot Violet last fall.

early blue 2 great spurred 2That narrows it down to Early Blue or Great-spurred Violets. That should be simple. With a name like Great-spurred Violet, it must have a larger spur than Early Blue? Wrong! Both have spurs. The Early Blue Violet (Viola adunca) also has the common name Hooked Violet. Adunca means “hooked” or “having hooks” referring to the bent tip of the spur. The Great-spurred Violet does lack the hook on the tip of the spur. Now have I got you confused? And that is why Patsy (of ENPG fame) doesn’t like common names!

great spurred 3So we’d better look at the leaves. The leaf shape is similar, egg- to heart-shaped. A close look will reveal that the top of the early blue violet is hairless or (glabrous) while the Great-spurred violet is hairy on top of the leaves.

The flower on the Early Blue is bearded on the two lateral petals while the Great-spurred Violet is hairless without beards on the pictures I have taken. The Great-spurred Violet (Viola selkirkii) is said to be less common. Last spring during the Elk Island flower count we found a new very large patch and we’re looking forward to doing the May flower count to see how this new patch is doing.

Another way to identify violets is to check if they have runners above ground or rhizomes, or whether the flowers are on leafy stems as opposed to springing directly from the basal leaves. Early Blue is the only violet in this group to have leafy stems.

Violet panel 2 copy

No matter which plant you are trying to identify always check for hairs on the stems and on the leaves both top and bottom.
These are just five of the thirteen species of violets in Alberta. So I have subjects for more blogs!

Plants of Alberta by France Royer and Richard Dickinson
Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland by Johnson, Kershaw, MacKinnon and Pojar
Thanks to Patsy Cotterill for editing. 
Web site:
All photos by Patrick Kyle.

Mosses & Lichens Redux – Mosses

A big thank you to Master Naturalist Adrian Jones for returning with a basic primer on this very popular subject! Click here for our redux on lichens.

Mosses are probably the first true plants to appear on the earth’s surface out of water, around 475+ million years ago, and may have developed from algae that internalized “power generation units” i.e. cyanobacteria, to use sunlight and CO2 to produce sugar for energy and release oxygen.

Moss 1So mosses contain chlorophyll (while fungi, previous blog, do not). Mosses have no vascular system and so all nutrients must be absorbed through their exposed cell walls. Since, unlike lichen, they have no protective coat, they must live on a damp or highly humid structure. Thus “the north side of the tree” grows the moss and shows direction, except if it is shady and damp in which case they’ll grow all around! Mosses usually have a central stem that supports the single cell thick ‘leaves’. All nutrients must be absorbed directly into the cell, from dust, water, and air.

There are over 14,000 mosses described worldwide with about 466 found in Alberta. Some “mosses” are actually not. For instance, Reindeer Moss is a lichen, Irish Moss is a red algae and Spanish Moss is a flowering plant. Mosses, unless hibernating, feel soft and are green. They can, however, lie dormant for very long periods and, in fact, a University of Alberta scientist, Catherine La Farge, collected an apparently dead moss remnant from the toe of a melting glacier on Ellesmere Island, carbon dated it to 400 years ago, and with expert TLC it started to grow again.

Moss reproduce by forming spores that are released from a capsule at the top of a stalk. These can be seen in the photo of moss on a rock in Stanley Park, BC.

In summary, lichens consist of a fungus with friends, one or both Cyanobacteria and an algae. There may also be other microbes involved in this symbiotic ecosystem. They tend to have a hard protective outer skin and can survive in highly unpleasant surroundings, often very dry. Reproduce by spontaneous breaking-off of pieces (that contain both fungal and symbiont organisms) that blow away in the wind and take up residence elsewhere. No seeds or spores are produced.

Mosses, on the other hand, are true plants, use chlorophyll to capture sunlight energy to make sugars and reproduce with spores distributed usually by the wind. Do not rely on insects since probably developed prior to insects on dry land. Mosses survive best in damp shaded conditions and form soft green mounds or matts.

Everything else is on the Web, so indulge, or just lay back on a soft bank of moss with a friend and be thankful for nature!