Living at 4,200 feet altitude (Modoc County CA), our spring wildflowers are late to blossom. Only buttercups, violets and dagger pod (Phoenicaulis cheiranthoides) are currently flowering on our ranch. When Leonard reported that he saw some violets with maroon and lilac petals in our west pasture, I assumed the violets in question were common sagebrush violets (Viola trinervata).
Later when Leonard took me back to see the violets I was surprised to find the much less common Beckwith’s violet (Viola beckwithii). On first glance sagebrush and Beckwith’s violets look superficially similar. The single, irregular flowers of both plants have five petals with bilateral symmetry (the two halves are the same). The upper two petals are a reddish violet while the lower three petals are lavender. Both these violets have five stamens, a single, superior ovary and five sepals. The most obvious difference is seen in the leaves. The sagebrush violet leaves have a grey cast and look fleshy and leathery. Although divided into segments, the leaves look more like a basal cluster of individual spatulate leaves. Beckwith’s violet leaves are a brighter green and are divided into three main parts each having many linear lobes. Beckwith’s leaves have a fernlike or carrot top appearance.
Beckwith’s violets are also colloquially called Great Basin violets or sagebrush pansies. These native perennials are found in the moist sagebrush flats of Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah and Idaho during the early spring.
Like all violets, the leaves and flowers of Beckwith’s violet are edible. However, since this is an uncommon violet it should not be gathered for culinary purposes. The seeds are reported to be mildly toxic.
Beckwith’s violet was named for Edward Beckwith (1818-1881), an American soldier.
I previously did a post on sagebrush violets (“Sagebrush Violet” 3-16-2012). However on revisiting that post I realized it did not include good pictures of the sagebrush violet leaves. Another post will need to illustrate the leaf differences between Beckwith’s and sagebrush violets.