Arrow-leaved violet, or arrowhead violet, is a native Missouri perennial spring wildflower that grows in prairies, glades, and woodland openings. It has distinctive arrowhead-shaped leaves.
Like a majority of our other violets, arrow-leaved violet lacks a true aboveground stem; that is, the leaf stems and flower stems each attach separately, in a whorl, to the rootstock. Its bluish or purple flowers resemble those of many other violets. It blooms April–June.
The leaf blade shape, however, is distinct, and it changes as spring progresses. Unless you’re looking at the first few leaves produced early in spring, you’ll probably find different leaf shapes on the same plant. In early spring, the first leaves produced are unlobed and more or less rounded; also, late in the growing season, the plant may again start producing similar unlobed leaves. But in midspring, mature plants produce leaves that are longer than wide, with a single large, oval or triangular central lobe; additional lobes occur only at the basal third of the blade and are rather short, less than one-third the length of the midvein; the leaves look something like arrowheads, hence the name.
To learn more about Missouri's violets (genus Viola) as a group, visit their group page.
Similar species: Missouri has five species of stemless blue/purple violets with unlobed leaf blades that are always either heart-shaped, kidney-shaped, or rounded; one example is the aptly named common violet (V. sororia). In early spring, arrow-leaved violet plants that haven’t yet developed mature, lobed leaves may be mistaken for any of those five unlobed species. The flowers may be virtually identical.
More confusing, however, are Missouri’s two other stemless blue/purple violets that, like arrow-leaved violet, also have lobed leaf blades with a wide central lobe plus smaller lateral lobes. However, in the cases of those two violets (cleft violet, V. palmata, and plains or wayside violet, V. viarum), the leaf shape changes during the growing season, and the lobes at the basal portion of the leaf attain lengths greater than one-third the length of the midvein.
Missouri has two other lobed-leaved, stemless blue violets: bird’s-foot violet (also called pansy violet or hens and roosters, V. pedata), and prairie violet (or larkspur violet, V. pedatifida). These, however, have leaf lobes that are all narrow, like a bird’s foot.
Height: to 12 inches.
Scattered nearly statewide, but uncommon or absent from the Bootheel lowlands and the western half of the glaciated plains of northern Missouri. Relatively widespread in Missouri but apparently nowhere very abundant.
Habitat and Conservation
Occurs in dry prairies, sandstone glades, and edges or clearings of open oak forests, on dry to seasonally somewhat moist or gravelly sand.
Native Missouri perennial wildflower. Like most other Missouri violets, it can be used in native wildflower gardening.
The common name and the species name, sagittata, both refer to the arrowhead-shaped, or sagittate, leaves. This resemblance to arrowheads can remind us of Native Americans’ long history as inhabitants and stewards of tallgrass prairies — the habitat where this species grows.
Violets, as a group, are a favorite sign of springtime in Missouri. They are enjoyed by native wildflower gardeners as blooming groundcovers or naturalized in native plantings or in rock gardens. Though rather small, they are gratifying to grow, since they are valuable to wildlife ranging from butterflies to the variety of birds and mammals that browse their leaves and fruit capsules. Some species are easier to cultivate than others. Get starts of these plants from reputable wildflower nurseries.
In our region, arrow-leaved violet is one of the preferred violet species of the threatened regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia). The butterfly caterpillars must feed on the violet host plants. Conservation efforts for the butterfly include transplanting arrow-leaved violet into native prairies to improve the habitat of this strikingly beautiful, large butterfly. Both the butterfly and the violet species are specialized for living in prairies, so prairie conservation is critical.
Several other kinds of moth and butterfly caterpillars eat violets, including the giant leopard moth, plus most fritillary species, which are all colorful, medium-sized to large butterflies.
Pollination is carried out by various flies, bees, butterflies, and more.
Like many other perennial herbaceous wildflowers, Missouri’s violets help hold the soil, preventing erosion, and provide forage for many herbivorous animals. Many songbirds, rodents, and other animals eat the seeds.
In our native prairies, grasses and robust wildflowers easily reach 6 feet tall in midsummer. This means that short, spring-blooming wildflowers like these violets must get a move on early in the spring, so they bloom and set seed before they are overwhelmed by much taller plants. One reason land managers conduct controlled burns in prairies in late winter is to reduce a buildup of dried, grassy thatch, which allows small spring species like these violets a better chance to survive and reproduce.