If you’re taking a walk through the woods, instead of admiring the majesty of the tree canopy, take a look at the meek, ground-dwellers below. Among them, you may come across the common dog violet (Viola riviniana). Flowering from April to June (so if you’re reading this blog post soon after I’ve posted, be quick!) this wonderful little plant is of great ecological importance.
Dog might seem an odd choice of name for this species. Is it because of the colour? No. How about the shape? Not that either. ‘Dog’ is an English prefix, suggesting inferiority. Dog violets are inferior to their scented cousins, sweet violets, so named because of their sweet scent. Dog violets also have some pretty cute local names, such as ‘salchuach’, an Irish word meaning ‘cuckoo’s foot’.
Although this plant is small in size, it is great in importance to fritillary butterlies and Lincolnshire. Common dog violet is one of the vital species for some of Britain’s at risk and declining fritillary butterflies: pearl-bordered, small pearl-bordered, dark green, silver-washed and high brown. They are the most widely used foodplant for many of these species, and some also lay their eggs on the dog violets’ leaves.
One obvious sign that a flower is designed to feed insects, such as butterflies, is the long spur at the back of the flower. This empty extension contains nectaries which, as the name suggests, produces nectar. The shape of the spur allows only insects with proboscises (a long sucking mouth) to drink from them. A clever little design to ensure the sweet reward of nectar is reserved only for those that will pollinate the flower. This is something called “convergent evolution”, a topic I’d love to write a blog about in the future.
So, what about Lincolnshire? Well, in 2002, Plantlife, a conservation charity, ran a campaign to assign flowers to each of the counties of the United Kingdom and the Isle of Man. The common dog violet was named the County Flower of Lincolnshire.
Blink and you might miss it, but to many, threatened butterfly species, this beautiful, unassuming little plant is crucial. Further proof that sometimes great things come in the smallest packages.