A perennial herb found in Britain on damp peaty or clayey, base-rich soils in seasonally wet fens, and in Ireland on the margins of turloughs. It is a poor competitor, preferring areas subject to fluctuating water levels, cattle trampling or peat-digging. Seed is long-lived. Lowland.
V. persicifolia was lost from many sites before 1930. It survives at Wicken Fen and Woodwalton Fen (Cambs.), but its management at Wicken has proved to be difficult. It was thought to be extinct at Otmoor (Oxon), but a small population was found in 1997. Its distribution in Ireland is stable.
Eurosiberian Temperate element, with a continental distribution in W. Europe.
Count of 10km squares in Great Britain: 18
Count of 10km squares in Ireland: 17
Count of 10km squares in the Channel Isles: 0
Atlas Change Index: -0.62
RDB Species Accounts
Viola persicifolia Schreb. (Violaceae)
Viola stagnina Kit.
Status in Britain: ENDANGERED. WCA Schedule 8.
Status in Europe: Not threatened?
V. persicifolia is a plant of wet, peaty, base-rich soils in fens and formerly river valleys, growing in relatively open vegetation, often with some bare peat. It is found in a mixed fen community, typically including Calamagrostis canescens, C. epigejos, Carex panicea, Hydrocotyle vulgaris and Mentha aquatica. Other associates may include Anagallis tenella, Angelica sylvestris, Cladium mariscus, Filipendula ulmaria and Luzula pallidula. V. persicifolia seems to favour sites which are seasonally wet, (usually in winter), rather than those which are permanently waterlogged. Plants do not persist when the vegetation becomes overgrown and do best where the surface of the peat is periodically disturbed, as for example by peat-digging or grazing by cattle.
It is a creeping perennial, with narrow pointed leaves and pale bluish-white flowers, from which the plant gets the name 'milk violet' in some European countries. Flowers appear in May and June. In addition to the normal ones, small, self-fertile cleistogamous flowers are produced which can also set seed in great abundance.
This species has been recorded from more than twenty sites in England, though has long been lost from most of these. Two of the most recent losses were from Suffolk in 1968, and from the Doncaster area in 1975. It is now confined to two NNR fenland sites in Cambridgeshire, and one in Oxfordshire. At the Cambridgeshire sites, Woodwalton Fen and Wicken Fen (Rowell, et al. 1982; Rowell 1983), the sizes of the populations fluctuate spectacularly. At Wicken Fen, several hundreds flowered in the early 1980s after a gap of over 60 years during which no plants had been recorded (Rowell 1984), but in 1994, only 366 plants (and numerous seedlings) were recorded there. No plants were seen at Woodwalton Fen in 1993 or 1994 (Wells, et al. 1995), but in 1995 and 1996 more than 1,000 plants were in flower, many of them in an experimental disturbance plot set up in 1994 (T.C.E.Wells, pers. comm.). The unhybridised plant was thought to be extinct at Otmoor, Oxfordshire, by 1965 (Woodell 1967), but a population of about 50 plants was discovered there in 1997.
Seed can remain viable in the soil for long periods, and experience in England and on the continent suggests that where appropriate physical conditions persist, a population can re-establish well under suitable management (Pullin & Woodell 1987). Few of its historical sites still have an appropriate hydrology and nutrient status, but it is not impossible that some populations persist in these areas as buried seed. In the past, populations have been due to agricultural improvement, including drainage and nutrient enrichment, and to site destruction, including commercial peat-digging. In the known remaining populations overgrowth of the fen vegetation and excessive waterlogging have suppressed the growth of V. persicifolia. At Wicken Fen the plants grow in an area where, in the past, peat was dug by hand. This site would benefit from a lowering of the water level or perhaps remodelling of the land to bring some peat above the water surface. Part of Woodwalton Fen is grazed to maintain a small population, but periodic disturbance including scrub removal is necessary in order to produce enough fruiting plants to replenish the seed-bank.
In Europe this species is known from similar habitats but is frequently found in grazed vegetation, for example in the Irish turloughs (Pullin 1986) and in the Netherlands. It is distributed widely from Scandinavia to northern Spain and from western Ireland to Russia, but has declined throughout western Europe with the loss of peatland habitats. V. persicifolia is now rare in Ireland and either rare or extinct in most other western European countries, although its position is more secure in the Baltic region.
V. M. Morgan
PLANTATT - Attributes of British and Irish plants. (.zip 1455KB) This dataset was compiled and published in 2004, and last updated in November 2008. Download includes an Excel spreadsheet of the attributes, and a PDF explaining the background and nomenclature. Note that the PDF version is the booklet as published, whereas the Excel spreadsheet incorporates subsequent corrections. A hardcopy can be purchased from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
Atlas text references
2000. Fen Violet Viola persicifolia at Wicken Fen: a reinforcement population. Nature in Cambridgeshire. 42:27-33.
1988. The Irish Red Data Book. 1. Vascular Plants.
1986. Atlas of north European vascular plants north of the Tropic of Cancer. 3 vols.
1984. Further discoveries of the Fen Violet (Viola persicifolia Schreber) at Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire. Watsonia. 15:122-123.
1982. The rediscovery of the Fen Violet, Viola persicifolia Schreber, at Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire. Watsonia. 14:183-184.
1999. British Red Data Books. 1. Vascular plants, edn 3.