Ask A Master Gardener – Vibrant Violas

The viola genus of plants is vast, including violets, pansies, johnny jump-ups, and the Wisconsin State Flower, the wood violet. The common denominator among the plants is color, color, and more vibrant color.  There are over 500 species, each with their own dainty appeal.

All violas are cool weather plants; the perennial species are a harbinger of spring. The annuals will do best in the spring and the fall. Although botanically pansies and violas are in the same species, horticulturally those with flowers over two inches are considered pansies and those with one to two inch flowers are violas.

Violas have a long, rich history. Pansy comes from the French word pensée, which means “thought”. It is presumed to have been named so because it resembles a human face and “nods” forward as if in deep thought.  The French believed that pansies could make your loved one think of you.  That sentiment continued into other cultures. Most violas had some form of thoughts of love to the Victorians, with color influencing the type of thought.

Violas are one of the most popular edible flower. Not only are they beautiful, but they actually taste good; some are sweet and some have a mild pea-like flavor.  Both the flowers and leaves have been used fresh and in dried form in European cuisine since before the 14th century.  Fresh flowers are used for garnishing and crystalizing, adding sweetness to teas, desserts, and fruit salads.  The greens on the other hand, provide texture and nutrition to green salads.  A one-half cup serving can provide as much Vitamin C as three oranges, prompting the late Euell Gibbons to dub them “nature’s vitamin pill.”

Be cautious before deciding to consume any viola. Positively identify any plant before eating it and make sure to gather it in a pesticide-free location. In addition, please note that African violets are NOT violas and are not edible.

Besides being beautiful and edible, violets are a host for fritillary butterfly larva. Violets are the only food the larva eat and are crucial to their survival.  Although they do not make the long migration of the Monarch butterfly, nor do they get as much press, some species of fritillary butterflies are considered endangered. They are important pollinators and worthy of providing habitat for their life cycle.

When it comes time to grow violas, gardeners have choices, three are perennial and one is an annual. Sweet violets (viola odorata) are a true perennial that are found in fields and lawns.  They are easily recognized by the strong, sweet scent and the deep violet color.

Johnny jump ups (viola tricolor) are a self-seeding perennial with small, dainty blooms that will spread, but not in an aggressive manner. Tufted or horned violets (viola cornuta) are a spreading 6-10-inch-tall perennial with mid-sized blooms and a mild scent.

Pansies (viola wittrockiana) were one of the first bedding plants to be developed. The Swedish botanist Viet B. Wittrock (after whom the pansy is named), indicates that modern pansies are a hybrid of two English and one Russian wild flower.  They have been extensively bred and come in a range of colors including red, purple, blue, bronze, pink, black, yellow, white, lavender, mahogany, apricot and orange.

Pansies are widely available at nurseries and can be used in any location that has morning sun and rich, well-drained soil. Adding compost or other organic matter to the soil at planting time will make pansies happy. Space the plants 7 to 12 inches apart and do not plant in the same location more than three years in a row to prevent a soil disease from building. Water each week that there is less than an inch of rainfall. Remove spent flowers regularly for the longest bloom time.

Pansies also do very well in containers. A mass of either the larger or smaller bloom flowers look stunning in hanging baskets, window boxes, buckets, or nearly any container imaginable.

Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener

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