Rare and tiny Walter’s violet listed as endangered
Violets are synonymous with spring, at least for lovers of botany. Chances are your garden is dotted with spots of purple. The color is courtesy of the common blue violet (viola sororie). It is a hardy native, able to survive in turf deserts.
the common blue violet is not the only purple there, although some of the others require a lot more research. More or less, there are about 26 native species in the genus Alto in Ohio. Giving, for the most part: taxonomists have proposed a number of “new” species, these sculpted from established species. But skeptics remain and not all new splits have been widely accepted.
Botanical idiots might want to group them into three species: the purple oneswhites and yellows.
On a trip to southern Ohio on April 22 (Earth Day), I encountered a thriving population of one of our rarest violets. walter’s violet (Viola Walterilisten)) is listed as endangered by the state and is currently known only from Adams and Highland counties. These are the northernmost populations of its range.
Walter’s violet is also our smallest violet. The leaves are about the size of your little fingernail, and an entire plant could comfortably fit on a half dollar coin. They require ground level inspection to truly appreciate them.
The scientific name Viola Walteri recognizes the botanist Thomas Walter, a complex and productive character. Born in Hampshire, England in 1740, Walter came to America in the late 1760s, settling in Charleston, South Carolina, and wasted no time making his mark.
At that time, the flora and fauna of the eastern United States were poorly understood and there was much to discover. Walter discovered a number of new plants, and eight of them were named in his honor.
In 1788, Walter published the results of his work in a book entitled “Flora Caroliniana”, a milestone in North American botany. He died the following year at age 48.
Between his botanizations, Walter married three times, produced five children, was a successful merchant, acquired 4,500 acres of land, and held political office.
Including Walter’s violet, seven species of violets are listed as endangered by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Unlike the common blue violet in your garden, most violets are finicky specialists. Habitat loss is a major reason for their rarity.
Franklin County offers an ideal habitat for Walter’s Violet: thin soil over limestone in open woods or glades. Suitable conditions previously existed along the River Scioto, particularly in the Dublin area. And that’s where the only county record of the Walter Violet comes from. A specimen was collected near Hayden Falls on May 6, 1916 by botanist FE Leonard. It was the northernmost site ever recorded.
Large-scale changes in the century that followed have not been favorable to the conservation of plants along the Scioto. The rampant development and spread of invasive plants has hit native plant communities hard. The elf Walter’s violet probably didn’t survive the onslaught.
However, glimmers of hope often remain in the case of long-dead plants. And several other rare plants cling tenuously to the rocky refuges of Dublin. Perhaps little Walter’s violet will one day be rediscovered in Franklin County.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.