How to Grow Dogtooth Violets

Pale violet flowers with recurved petals in a woodland setting.
The delicate, colorful petals of the dogtooth violet are a welcome sight in woodlands and meadows in the early spring.

fuuna / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 

The dogtooth violet (Erythronium albidum) is not technically a violet, but the flower known as a trout lily. It has other folk names as well, including adder's tongue and fawn lily. It is native to Europe but has been widely naturalized in North America.

With its delicate pale purple flowers, it is reminiscent of the colors of sweet violets (Viola odorata) in the spring. Some cultivars (like "Pagoda") are a creamy yellow color and "Purple King" is a pale fuchsia color.

The singular flower has recurved petals and dark purple stamens. It has two large, green leaves on either side of the stem and these have faint mottled markings of red or brown. The markings are similar to those of a trout, hence one of its common names.

The dogtooth violet is a perennial wildflower found in woodlands and meadows. It is well-loved by bees for its rich supply of nectar and is an important pollinator food. The leaves of the plant are edible; try them in a spring salad.

This flower is a "shrinking violet" just like its namesake, as it opens in the morning and closes in the evening. Its name comes from the shape of its bulb which resembles the angular shape of a canine tooth. Speaking of dogs -- the plants are toxic if eaten by cats or dogs, so this is a consideration when deciding to plant in a home garden.

Scientific Name Erythronium albidum
Common Name Dogtooth violet, white trout lily, glacier lily
Plant Type Herbaceous Perennial
Mature Size 6 to 12 inches
Sun Exposure Light or sun-dappled shade
Soil Type Moist, fertile, slightly acidic
Soil pH Acidic < 6.8
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Pale violet; white tinged with violet, yellow
Hardiness Zones USDA 4-9
Native Areas Central and southern Europe
Toxicity Toxic to household pets
Yellow recurved petals above a wildflower with green leaves mottled with red spots.
The dogtooth violet is also known as a white trout lily, so named for the red mottling on its green leaves.  Rona Proudfoot / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Dogtooth Violet Care

Opening in early spring, the dogtooth violet goes dormant in summer and autumn, and, for this reason, is known as a spring ephemeral. This makes it useful for underplanting larger late-season shade perennials like hostas, bleeding hearts or columbines.

Dogtooth violets can be easily grown in home gardens, but it's preferable to obtain bulbs from a nursery that specializes in native plants, rather than relocate specimens from the wild. In general, relocating wild or woodland plants is not a good idea; it can disturb the ecosystem and the plants often don't do well outside their native habitat. However, many gardeners want to have native plants in their gardens to help support the local wildlife, and the dogtooth violet is no exception.

If they're happy where they're planted, dogtooth violets will multiply readily. Site selection is important because the bulbs don't respond well to being transplanted.

Consider planting with other native woodland shade plants like trillium or Virginia bluebells.

Light

The dogtooth violet thrives with dappled sunlight or partial shade. Imagine the kind of light at the edge of a woodland, or in a forest clearing, and this is the perfect light situation.

Soil

The ideal soil environment for dogtooth violets is a humus-rich, moist, slightly acidic soil that mimics the woodland floors they flourish in. Mulching the bulbs over the winter with shredded leaves and a bit of pine straw can also be beneficial. Planting the bulbs beneath deciduous trees is also a good plan for creating a friendly environment for them.

Water

The dogtooth violet needs consistent moisture. If growing in your garden, try not to let them dry out and make sure to keep watered regularly in times of drought. If planted in a suitably shady location, and with some natural mulch, like pine bark, this will help them retain moisture.

Pruning

Deadheading is not necessary; in fact, laving the leaves intact after the flower petals fall off feeds the bulb to ready it for the following spring's flower formation.

Propagating Dogtooth Violets

Once established, dogtooth violets can be propagated from the offshoots of the plants.

Growing Dogtooth Violet From Bulbs

The best time to plant dogtooth violets is in the fall. The corm-like bulbs should be planted pointed side dawn, two to three inches deep and four to six inches apart.

Common Pests/Diseases

Dogtooth violets are very hardy plants that are virtually disease-free and also deer-resistant.

Because they do like moist soil, slugs may be an issue, but if found, just remove them.