Plants perennial, caulescent, not stoloniferous, 10–40 cm. Stems 1(2), erect, leafless proximally, leafy distally, glabrous or puberulent, from subligneous rhizome. Leaves basal and cauline; basal: 0(–2); stipules ovate, not leaflike, margins entire, apex acute to acuminate, surfaces glabrous or puberulent; petiole 9–11.5 cm, glabrous or puberulent; blade unlobed, ovate, or 3–5-lobed, 4–5 × 1–5 cm, base cordate, margins entire or crenate-serrate, ciliate or eciliate, apex acute, surfaces glabrous or ± puberulent; cauline similar to basal except: restricted to distal ends of stems; stipules ovate to oblong; petiole 0.7–7.2 cm, glabrous or puberulent; blade unlobed, ovate or deltate, or 3-lobed (if 3-lobed, lateral lobes falcate, middle rhombic, longer than others, lobes may appear petiolate; unlobed and 3-lobed leaves can occur on same plant), 1–6 × 0.5–5.5 cm, base truncate to cuneate, margins serrate, ciliate or eciliate, surfaces glabrous or pubescent. Peduncles 1.5–4 cm, glabrous or pubescent. Flowers: sepals lanceolate to ovate, margins ciliate or eciliate, auricles 0.1–0.5 mm; petals lemon-yellow adaxially, upper 2, rarely others, brownish purple abaxially, lowest and usually lateral 2 brownish purple-veined, lateral 2 and sometimes lowest bearded, lowest 10–18 mm, spur yellow, gibbous, 0.5–2 mm; style head bearded; cleistogamous flowers axillary. Capsules ovoid to ellipsoid, 9–12 mm, glabrous. Seeds beige, bronze, or brown, 2.4–3 mm. 2n = 12.
Phenology: Flowering Mar–May.
Habitat: Rich woods
Elevation: 50–1600 m
Ala., Fla., Ga., Ky., Miss., N.C., Ohio, Pa., S.C., Tenn., Va., W.Va.
Some authors recognize two varieties of Viola tripartita based on lobed versus unlobed leaves. F. L. Lévesque and P. M. Dansereau (1966) suggested that leaf variation is the only character difference between vars. tripartita and glaberrima. N. H. Russell (1965) stated that V. tripartita plants with lobed and unlobed leaves are sympatric and frequently intergrade and did not recognize them as distinct. The situation with two leaf forms in V. tripartita is similar to V. lobata, which also has two leaf forms.