by George Papadelis
In the spring, the earliest bedding plants to appear at your local garden center are violas and pansies. These are usually available in flats and look similar except violas have smaller flowers than pansies. So, what is the real difference between violas and pansies and is this the same “violet” that has spread all over my friend’s yard? As a matter of fact, the plants referred to as “violas,” “pansies,” and “sweet violets” are all in the same group of plants, namely the genus Viola.
Pansies are the result of crossing different species of violas. These “hybrids” (called Viola x wittrockiana) have flowers 2 to 4 inches across and include an incredible range of colors including white, black and practically every color in the rainbow. These plants will tolerate freezes and frosts, so gardeners can plant them as early as April 1 here in Michigan. They will flower profusely all spring and if old flowers are removed, they will most likely continue through the summer. The cool fall will encourage more flowering, which often lasts until the winter holidays. In our climate, pansies planted in a protected area usually return one more season for another performance, although somewhat less spectacular. Protected areas include the south side of the house and the cooler east side.
The smaller-flowering viola (Viola cornuta), sold in flats every spring, has evolved greatly. Several series such as the “Princess” series and the “Sorbets” have introduced new colors and color combinations that rival the closely related Johnny jump-up (Viola tricolor). Violas planted in our climate last one or two seasons. Just like pansies, spent flowers must be removed to encourage flowering through the hot summer.
Botanical Name: Viola cornuta (vy-OH-lah kor-NEW-tah)
Common Name: Violet, horned violet
Plant Type: Hardy annual/tender perennial
Plant Size: 5-10 inches tall
Flower Color: White, purple, violet, yellow, maroon
Flower Size: 1-1/2 inches wide
Bloom Period: Spring to fall
Light: Partial sun to sun
Soil: Well-drained, moist
Hardiness: Zone 5
Uses: Areas that are partially sunny, yet moist
Remarks: Remove spent flowers to encourage blooms through the summer
The dangerous member of this group is Viola odorata or “sweet violets” which are often just referred to as “violets.” These are very perennial, produce fragrant, small flowers in the spring, and may spread everywhere if you let them. Like violas and pansies, sweet violets produce seeds which may germinate and produce more plants. However, sweet violets also send underground stems called stolons in all directions, which may be difficult to find and remove. This invasive nature makes it an excellent groundcover or a wildflower in a naturalized site. Sweet violets have also been planted for as long as gardens have existed. The flower market in Athens, Greece sold sweet violets as early as 400 B.C. Its fragrance has been used by the perfume industry for centuries and is still being used by some today.
All members of the genus Viola produce edible flowers. Chefs all over the world use these showy blossoms as an attractive garnish, especially on salads. The blossoms also make great cut flowers and are among the most popular flowers for pressing. Members of the Viola family grow best in partial sun but full sun can be tolerated. High temperatures and drying out will cause stress, so keep the soil moist and cool if possible.
Gardeners looking for something different may want to try the purple-leafed viola (Viola labridorica) for its attractive foliage and fluorescent purple flowers. Other violas such as Viola koreana even have attractive silver patterned leaves. The bird’s foot violet (Viola pedata) is easy to identify because the leaves look just like a bird’s foot.
From a naturalizing habit to being self-contained, the genus Viola is so diverse that every gardener is sure to have a spot for at least one variety!
George Papadelis is the owner of Telly’s Greenhouse in Troy and Shelby Township, MI.