Bird's-foot Violet

Viola pedata. Few plants are better adapted to life on the forest floor than our violets, and few are better able to use insects to assure their survival. Though small, their flowers are bright, well marked with “bee guides” to direct insects to nectar and pollen, and often well scented to attract the attention of flying passersby. In a way, these plants seem almost smarter than insects. Violet seeds bear sweet, fatty appendages called elaiosomes that attract foraging ants. The ants collect the seeds, carry them to their underground homes, eat the elaiosomes, and then discard the seed itself in their tunnels designed for wastes. Come spring, with its melting snow and its showers, the subterranean seeds, surrounded by other ant detritus that may serve as fertilizer, are moistened and sprout. Thus, using “candy” as payment, violets have employed ants to spread and to plant their seeds. Botanists call this symbiotic process “myrmecochory” —  “ant dispersal” or, better, “ant farming.” Violets have attracted not only insects, but also an emperor. Napoleon Bonaparte loved violets and the flower became a symbol to his followers, who called him Caporal Violette or Le Père Violet.  States, too, like the flower: It’s the official flower of Illinois, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, and New Jersey. No other plant genus has been so popular with politicians.

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