Plants & Animals

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It has been more than 20 years since my friend and mentor, Mark Haas, encouraged me to think like a naturalist when traipsing through Missouri’s forests and prairies. I had just started a new job as a fisheries biologist with MDC, and I soon learned that Mark, my supervisor, had more in store for me than just fisheries training. Mark encouraged me to tote a copy of Missouri Wildflowers on my turkey scouting trips, so I could learn every wildflower I saw along the way. He also suggested that I write in the book the time and place of each discovery. It seemed odd to me at the time that Mark, who was an ardent angler and hunter, could be so passionate about wildflowers. I soon learned that Mark’s love for nature extended beyond wildflowers to birds, trees, and mammals. Mark was not only a formally trained biologist but also a born naturalist, and his innate desire to share his wisdom would be my good fortune for years to come.

Recently I was perusing my old notes in the wildflower book I’d carried through the woods during those early years. I noticed that one of my first entries was for a bird’s-foot violet (Viola pedata). The bird’s-foot violet, with velvety petals of purple and lavender, is one of Missouri’s most iconic spring wildflowers along with the likes of spring beauty and rue anemone. Stumbling across a patch of bird’s-foot violets in early April can evoke the same emotions that arise from the sound of a field sparrow’s melody, confirmation that winter has succumbed to the renewal of spring.

Diminutive in size, bird’s-foot violet consists of five petals spanning about an inch across. The plant’s leaves remind some of a bird’s foot, hence the name. Coming in two color forms, the flower may be all lavender, or three petals of lavender and two of rich purple with a velvety texture. Occurring nearly statewide, bird’s-foot violet is commonly found in open woods and glades. It can also be spotted along roadsides along with many other spring wildflowers. I captured this image of the two-colored form, which is sometimes called “hens and roosters,” on a ridge along the Bourbuese River in Franklin County.

Bird’s-foot violets provide many benefits beyond their colorful contribution to the forest floor. They not only produce nectar for pollinators, but also serve as host plants on which the larvae of certain butterflies, especially fritillaries, can feed after hatching. As with other wildflowers, bird’s-foot violets produce seeds that are consumed by birds, mice, and other critters, and the flowers themselves are a tasty treat for rabbits.

Mark is now retired, but we continue to stay in regular contact, sharing stories about turkeys, songbirds, ducks, and wildflowers. I continue to seek his guidance on Missouri’s flora and fauna.

The Missouri Wildflowers field guide is $14 (plus shipping and handling). You can order a copy at mdcnatureshop.com or by calling 877-521-8632. You may also purchase one at a conservation nature center or regional office near you.

—Story and photo by Danny Brown

We help people discover nature through our online field guide. Visit mdc.mo.gov/node/73 to learn more about Missouri’s plants and animals.

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