The mention of violets can bring to mind a sweet spring surprise or a reliable ground cover. Or perhaps you might think of violets as self-sowing, persistent lawn and garden bullies, placing them firmly in the weed category. Whatever your personal view, violets are a good example of a plant that offers more than we realize.
The humble violet happens to be the host plant of great spangled fritillary caterpillars. No violets– no food–no fritillaries! In late summer, the female lays her eggs under shrubs and other protected places near the host plant, concealing them in leaf litter. The female is thought to be able to smell the roots of the violets in these locations.
After the eggs hatch, the tiny caterpillars spend the winter under these leaves, awakening in the spring at the same time as the violet plants begin to grow. Nature’s timing is perfect!
Despite the many adult fritillaries we’ve observed fluttering through the SBG, we have yet to spot the caterpillars. But it’s no mystery why! Hiding under debris during the day and coming out to feed only at night, these elusive larvae are rarely seen.
There are 87 species of violets in North America; at the SBG, the most abundant species are the Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia) and Canadian White Violet (Viola Canadensis) .
On your next walk, pause to consider the virtuous violets–there’s a good chance that fritillary caterpillars are hiding beneath, ready for their spring buffet.
Photo: Pam Ford