How to Get Rid of Wild Violets in the Lawn

Or Just Enjoy Them As Pretty Wildflowers

White wild violets in bloom.
David Beaulieu

It's difficult to get rid of wild violets growing in your grass unless you resort to using herbicides. This fact, alone is enough to bring "green" homeowners to the conclusion that it's best simply to treat them as lovely wildflowers rather than as weeds and leave them alone. For those less tolerant of sharing lawn space with other plants, however, learn which type of herbicide to apply so that the weeds are killed but the grass is not.

Taxonomy and Botany of Wild Violets

The seemingly simple name of "wild violets" (or "common violets") sounds simple enough, but, actually, it covers a great variety of plants. Plant taxonomy lists Viola sororia (you'll also see the name Viola papilionacea) as one of these plants. Since Viola sororia is the kind most likely to be found growing as a lawn weed, it will be used as an example here. Just remember that other types do exist. 

Viola sororia is considered a broadleaf, herbaceous perennial by botanists. Wild violets are also sometimes considered herb plants, since they possess medicinal qualities.

Qualities of This Common Lawn Weed

Wild violets are best known for their namesake violet-blue flowers, although the blossoms do occur in other colors, such as white. Markings of a different color are often present, adding further beauty to this classic flower. A patch of purple violets growing on a lawn can be a truly gorgeous sight.

The foliage is more or less heart-shaped but may also taper to a fine point. The surface of the leaves is waxy. The plants commonly grow to be about 4 to 6 inches high, although, depending on conditions, they may grow taller than that. They have a fibrous root system.

Various types of butterfly caterpillars treat the leaves as a food source, making wild violets valued by gardeners looking for plants that attract butterflies.

Where They Grow (Native Origin, Preferred Sun and Soil Conditions)

Viola sororia is native to eastern North America. These flowers grow in planting zones 3 to 9.

The plants prefer partial sun to partial shade. If you were growing them as a landscaping plant, the recommended soil would be moist to average. These conditions will promote the best display. But, as anyone who has tried to get rid of them knows, these wildflowers don't need much help to survive. In fact, they may well survive a drought better than your lawn grass will.

Uses in Landscaping, Cuisine, Medicine

Because wild violets have pretty flowers, which bloom early and often, not everyone regards them as a type of weed, even when the landscaping area that they have chosen to call home is the lawn. Many homeowners choose to let these wildflowers grow as they will (and may even enjoy their presence). This can be because they:

  • Want to avoid herbicide use
  • Don't wish to put unnecessary effort into weed control
  • Crave a more natural landscape design

Moreover, they are edible weeds, as both the flowers and the leaves can be eaten. Young leaves are best for eating. The taste reminds you of nuts. They also have medicinal qualities, due to an acid they contain that can break down corns and warts.

Avoiding Confusion

Don't confuse wild violets (Viola sororia, etc.) with African violets (Saintpaulia spp.). The latter, which are popular houseplants, are inedible. Furthermore, they're not even true violets; they were so named simply through floral resemblance. Their botanical name refers not directly to the Saint Paul of the Bible but to Baron von Saint Paul, a plant collector who was responsible for introducing them into Europe from Africa.

How to Get Rid of Violets

Even if you keep them from going to seed, the fact is that some types of wild violets can spread via stolons or rhizomes, so they're difficult to control.

When trying to get rid of violets growing in a flower bed, some people spray Roundup (glyphosate) on them. But this assumes that the weeds aren't growing right near other plants (since the Roundup chemical spray is non-selective) and that you're not an organic gardener.

More and more gardeners are getting away from using Roundup, viewing it as unsafe. Another option is to dig them up. Understand, however, that new plants will spring up from the tiniest bit of root left behind in the soil. That means two things if you have lots of these weeds in your flower bed:

  • Lots of holes (and the bare spots that result from digging the holes)
  • You'll probably have to repeat your control efforts, as you are bound to miss something.

As big a problem as that sounds like, trying to kill them when they're growing in the lawn is even worse. For one thing, all of the holes would leave your lawn looking like a moonscape. Moreover, you can't use mulch as an ally when trying to control violets that have become lawn weeds (whereas applying mulch is a smart preventive measure in a flower bed).

Unfortunately, that means that, if you are committed to killing violets in your lawn, you may well have to resort to using an herbicide. The herbicide must be a selective type that will kill the weed but not the grass. Products that contain triclopyr are recommended (unless your lawn is made up of bermudagrass). One such herbicide that is readily available at home-improvement stores is Weed-B-Gon Chickweed, Clover & Oxalis killer. Expect to have to follow up with repeat sprayings.

The optimal time to spray with the triclopyr is autumn. That is when plant foods are most active in traveling down to the root system, as the plant prepares for winter. Send triclopyr along for the ride, and you will be able to cause some damage. Very likely, this one application of herbicide won't kill the violets outright, however, so you might want to follow up next year in spring and then again in fall (as needed).

Because of the waxy coating on the violet leaves, some advise mixing a surfactant into the herbicide before spraying. "Surfactant" may sound like a fancy word, but just think of it as something that aids your herbicide so that it will work better. A surfactant helps out by reducing surface tension.

A surfactant will help your herbicide to cut through the waxy surface of the leaf and reach down to the area where it can do the most damage. There are commercial surfactants you can buy, such as Spreader Sticker. But you can save money by mixing in dish soap, instead (one tablespoon per gallon of spray).

Types of Violas

It's often difficult for the non-expert to identify the various wild violets beyond any shadow of a doubt. Part of the problem in identification lies in the fact that the plant in front of you at any given time may well be a natural hybrid plant.

Here are some examples of wild violet (Viola) species:

  • V. odorata: zones 4 to 9; partial shade; 7 to 10 inches tall; fragrant blue or purple flowers
  • V. blanda: zones 2 to 7; partial shade; 3 to 6 inches tall; fragrant white flowers
  • V. canadensis: zones 3 to 8; partial sun to partial shade; 12 to 18 inches tall; white flowers
  • V. rotundifolia: zones 3 to 7; full shade; 3 to 6 inches tall; yellow flowers

But it doesn't end there. Some violas are landscape plants with which you're probably familiar (even if you call them by a different name):

  • Johnny-jump-ups (V. tricolor)
  • Pansies (V. x wittrockiana)