Diggin’ In: Violets can be a thing of beauty; ants, not so much

March 14, 2016

If you think ants in the kitchen and violets in the yard are not a good thing, you are right on one.

Ants are unwelcomed parades across a kitchen counter or floor.

Violets, however, are bright spots in the spring yard.

"This bright little plant often grows in lawns that are not mowed too often nor too high," says Helen Hamilton, past president of the John Clayton Chapter, Virginia Native Plant Society, and retired biology teacher living in Williamsburg, Va. Learn more about the native plant society at

"Virginia Tech lists this violet as ‘primarily a weed of turfgrass and landscapes,’ but their deep purple-blue color is a welcome sign of spring.

"Violets are host plants for fritillary butterflies. They lay their eggs on the leaves, which are food source for their larvae, the caterpillars."

Common blue violet, or Viola sororia, thrives in most Virginia counties, and is commonly found in the eastern and central United States, according to Hamilton.

The flowers and leaves are on separate stems, and grow no more than eight inches tall. Violets reproduce in three ways. During early spring and fall when there are few insects, barely-seen flowers self-pollinate. When the flowers bloom March-June, insects visit the flowers for nectar, which results in cross-pollination, she continues.

After flowering, the plant’s seed capsules eject seeds into the air. Some species of ants feed on a sweet appendage on the seeds, which helps scatter the seeds elsewhere.

In addition, violets reproduce from branching rhizomes that form colonies in natural habitats. The plants also become weedy in lawns, fields and pastures.

Common blue violet likes partial sun or light shade and moist to average conditions. The soil should be a rich silty loam or clay loam with above average amounts of organic matter.

"The flowers and young leaves of violets are edible, and can be added to salads in small amounts, although the taste is bland," says Hamilton.

There are several forms of Viola sororia with differently colored flowers. A variety with whitish petals and violet markings is called Confederate violet. Common blue violet is the state flower of New Jersey, Illinois, Rhode Island and Wisconsin, according to Hamilton.

Antsy ants

The silly saying "ants in your pants" is a fun way to tell someone they can’t sit still, and it actually fits the tiny insect’s busy lifestyle.

When Hamilton writes about ants, she loves to quote Edward O. Wilson who made a lifetime study of the creatures.

"His 1990 publication The Ants is encyclopedic, a systemic study of ants and their behavior," says Hamilton.

"Ants are everywhere, on all landmasses on Earth, with the exception of a few remote islands. They thrive in most ecosystems and may form almost one-quarter of the whole biomass of terrestrial animals. These are ancient animals, with a long lineage. Dr. Wilson found an ant fossil dating to the Cretaceous period, 92 million years ago. He estimates there are approximately one million ants for every human on Earth."

Found in a wide range of ecological niches, ants rely on different food resources. They feed on plant material, dead or alive, and on animals usually smaller than themselves.

"People are fascinated watching leafcutter ants move in columns across a footpath, carrying fragments many times larger than themselves," Hamilton says.

Ants are good at dispersing seeds on several familiar plants, she adds, including violets, spring beauty, trillium, hellebore, hepatica, bloodroot and other early spring-blooming species. These plants add a small structure, called an eliaosome, to their seeds. The structures contain fats and proteins that ants like, so they carry the seeds back to their nests. After the ants eat the eliaosomes, they discard the seeds on their trash pile, which contains nutrients that promote the growth of new seedlings.

Ants are easily identified by their elbowed antennae and divided body parts with a slender waist.

Ant colonies last a long time, with queens that can live up to 30 years, and workers one to three years, according to Hamilton. They are very active in warm weather, and less so in cooler climates.

"Their very successful lifestyle has been a subject of study, since the division of labor, communication between individuals, and the ability to solve problems has parallels with human societies," says Hamilton.

"Ants communicate in many ways — sounds, touches and chemical signals (pheromones), which they gather with long and thin antennae.

"The word ‘ant’ comes from old languages. The original meaning was ‘the biter,’ probably referring to the strong jaws on the head, used to carry food, to construct nests and for self-defense."



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