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Late last autumn we noticed some interesting heart-shaped leaves pushing through the soil near one of our redwood groves while we were installing the deer fence. At first glance it seemed this plant might be wild ginger (Asarum caudatum), but on closer inspection the heart-shaped leaf margins seemed too scalloped to be Asarum.

Newly emerging leaves in late autumn of our mystery plant

After some inconclusive sleuthing, we needed some help identifying our mystery plant.  I thought it might be a wild violet of some sort based on leaf shape, but couldn’t be sure.  I had recently met Christine from Idora Design through the garden blogging community known as Blotanical, and knew she was much more well versed in California native plants than myself.  I emailed Christine some photographs of the leaves for her opinion, fully recognizing that a definitive identification might not be possible until the plant bloomed.

Leaf close-up. Note the toothed edges of the leaf margin

Christine’s best guess was that the leaves were most likely those of Viola ocellata, also known as Western Heart’s Ease, Two-eyed Violet, or Pinto Violet, but that we wouldn’t know for certain until the flowers emerged.  Impatiently, we’ve been waiting…and waiting…and WAITING for this plant to bloom ever since!  It turns out Christine was right, we do indeed have Viola ocellata growing here, as evidenced by the first blooms this spring!  Thank you Christine!

The first bloom of the season brings us the answer...Viola ocellata

Viola ocellata is an herbaceous perennial, native only to California and extreme southwestern Oregon, found growing from Monterey county northward, primarily in mixed coastal redwood forests between 500-3000 feet in elevation. Jepson’s A Flora of California specifically notes that Viola ocellata is known to grow in the Glenwood region of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Growing from five to twelve inches tall, the small one-inch white flowers usually emerge from March through June.  It seems to be blooming a little early this year, no doubt due to our warm wet winter.  When viewed from the front, the base of each petal is yellow, collectively forming a yellow throat at the center of the flower.  The two lower lateral petals are also usually spotted with purple.  The lowest petal of Viola ocellata is striated with purple, and these striae are thought to be ‘nectar guides’, UV markings that attract pollinators to the nectar source at the base of the flower.

The flower of Viola ocellata consisting of 5 white petals, with yellow bases, forming the colored throat of the flower

When the flowers are viewed from behind, the two upper petals have purple ‘eye-spots’, hence the name “Two-Eyed Violet”.

The 'eye-spots' of Viola ocellata are visible on the back of the flower

Side view of Viola ocellata in bloom

The eye-spots on the dorsal-most petals are responsible for newly emerging flower buds appearing burgundy to purple in color.

The tightly closed flower buds are burgundy-purple in color

As the flower unfurls, it is clear the purple color of the buds is due to the eye-spots on the petals

Viola ocellata

This plant seems very prolific here, now that we know what we’re looking for, forming numerous colonies near the redwood grove below the vegetable gardens.

A colony of Viola ocellata emerging near the vegetable garden

Some of the leaves, as they begin to senesce, turn a beautiful shade of burgundy red.

As the leaves fade, they turn a beautiful shade of burgundy red

Unfortunately, detailed references for this plant seem rather limited.  There are references that suggest Viola ocellata is a known host plant for the Pacific Fritillary butterfly (Boloria epithore), often sighted here in late spring.

Although Native Americans have been known to use many species of Viola either as food or medicine, I haven’t been able to find any ethnobotanical data relating to the specific use of Viola ocellata.

One early reference regarding Viola ocellata is found in the Violets of North America by Ezra Brainerd, published in 1921, which includes the line-drawing below.

The line-drawing is based on a herbarium specimen from Mount Tamalpias, collected June 6, 1899 by Miss Alice Eastwood

In this publication, Brainerd notes that his daughter, Mrs. Viola Brainerd Baird of Berkeley, California, did collect some beautiful specimens of these flowers here in the Santa Cruz Mountains, almost a century ago, on April 15, 1916.

Once our wet weather ends and our hillsides dry out these pretty little native flowers will no doubt disappear, but hopefully will re-emerge again with the rains next spring.