Wild (California, yellow, or grass) violet, pansy or Johnny –jump-up

This botanical illustration was created by Mardi Niles using a Micron 005 #1 Archival Ink pen and Prismacolor Verithin colored pencils on Bristol Regular paper. It will be the first of several beautiful pieces of native plant art by Mardi you will be seeing on our covers into the near future. 

Viola pedunculata is widespread throughout the coastal portion of our chapter area. It extends inland as far as there is enough moisture. Dr. Hoover reports that it is apparently absent from the desert portions of our county such as the Carrizo Plains. It is always a visible treat along Highway 58 where it can be seen growing in the grass under blue and valley oaks. Of course, it’s best after a moderate- or -better rainy season. The vegetative plant usually appears as a mound out of which the stalked purple streaked yellow flowers arise like little flags. Observe Mardi’s drawing again and imagine scores of them clustered into a tight mound and you will have created the plant’s most common appearance. The 5 petals are of different sizes and arranged to make the flower display with bilateral (left-right) symmetry.

In fact this violet is common enough that it is easy to take it for granted as just another meek but sort of pretty wild flower. But a look at the description of the plant in the Jepson Manual offers an interesting unexplained characteristic: For example, the genus description of Viola states that the species has ‘cleistogamous’ flowers. Cleistogamous flowers are usually tiny inconspicuous flowers in which the flower’s anther lies directly against the receptive portion of the pistil (stigma). They are usually produced deep down in the foliage or in this case deep inside the mound. That is, they are essentially invisible to pollinators. This condition results in seed in which the parents, both mother and father, are the same individual plant. This results in seed that is genetically identical to the parent; i.e. the only genetic variation possible is from extremely somatic rare mutations. It is a process that ensures seed is set regardless of drought or scarcity of pollinators. Unfortunately, this means all the seeds are identical. On the plus side, if the parent plant dies, cleistogamous flowers ensure that seed will be available to produce a replacement. Note that the pretty flowers that wave like flags above the mound are fully exposed to pollinators (chasmogamous) and capable of receiving pollen from other individual violet plants. Thus these flowers produce much seed that is cross pollinated and therefore variable and capable of growing in conditions different from where its parent is growing. Our little common native violet only produces chasmogamous or open pollinated flowers. This fact increases the percentage of variable seed but doesn’t mean all seed is from out-crossing since there is no barrier to pollen arriving from another flower on the same plant.

There is no real unanimity on the common name of our violet. A short search of the Internet and the wildflower books on my shelf turned up: ‘violet’, ‘Johnny jump up’, ‘pansy’, as well as ‘California violet’, ‘yellow violet’, and finally, ‘grass violet’. Note Johnny jump-up or pansy can be used with any of the names above. All of these names are variations of the common names associated with the genus Viola or with the very commonly grown introduced, violet, pansy or Johnny-jump-up (Viola tricolor) found in many gardens. Yellow refers to the dominant flower color and grass refers to its preferred habitat. Violet refers to the variations in violet color found in many species in the genus. However, remember our violet is yellow. California refers to the state that contains most of our violet’s range

Dirk Walters