Have you ever rehearsed a conversation in your head, getting yourself all worked up with imaginary, one-sided role-playing? That's kind of what we went through when we decided to write about Viola cornuta.
- Us: "Hey, have you ever grown violas? They're lov—"
- You, Dear Reader: "Hold on a minute! Aren't violas and pansies the same thing? Didn't you just write a post about pansies? Should you be drinking this much so early in the season?"
- Us: "Okay, no, yes, and absolutely!"
We combine pansies (Viola x wittrockiana) with violas on the same catalog page, but aside from their similarities, there's enough of a difference to justify giving violas their own day in the sun (so to speak)
Comparing violas to pansies
Both plants are low-growing perennials that are most often used as annual bedding plants. They, along with African violets, belong to the Violaceae family and Viola genus. The wild pansy is thought to be an offshoot of primitive violas, though each specializes in its own niche environment. Violas, for example, are adapted to alpine climates, which make them an excellent choice for areas with temperate winters or cool summers.
- Viola flowers are typically smaller, with an average width of an inch, but they flower more profusely than pansies do.
- Overall, violas tend to be more compact than violets.
- Violas tolerate a wider temperature range and a more extended bloom period, especially if they're transplanted early in spring and maintained for late-summer regrowth.
- Pansies have more varieties of multicolored and patterned blooms, but viola's solid colors are equally vibrant.
- Violas branch below ground, while wild pansies branch above the soil surface.
- Violas are, on the whole, hardier than pansies, and they can withstand heavy spring rains a bit better.
If all this is too much to remember, just think of violas as being noticeably more petite than pansies. Not always the most accurate way to identify them, especially given pansy's size variances, but it seems to be specific enough for many garden centers.
A little background...
The Viola genus is believed to have originated in central Europe, specifically northern Spain and the Pyrenees range. As early as the 4th century B.C., the Greeks used different Viola species as medicinal herbs. They're also called Johnny-jump-ups, tufted violet, and horned violet; in fact, cornuta is Greek for "horned." True V. cornuta violas are actually the primitive, unimproved species, and ornamental varieties from which modern cultivars are hybridized, but still, this is the botanical name most often assigned to your garden-variety violas.
By the early 1800s, botany enthusiasts began tinkering with wild pansies and violas. "It's generally accepted that Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet (1785-1861), daughter of the Earl of Tankerville, created, with the help of her gardener, William Richardson, the first garden pansies early in the 19th century. She first presented her hybrids in 1813, and they were immediately adopted by gardeners," wrote Larry Hodgson on his blog, The Laidback Gardener.
But we usually only hear about Lord John James Gambier and his own gardener, William Thompson, when the subject of pansy development arises. While they did create the first blotch-faced pansies in 1839 and are responsible for breeding the broad, overlapping petals, we feel we should give some love to the overshadowed Ms. Bennett.
Viola flowers have long been used as minty garnishes in salads, as pastry decorations, and as pressed flowers. You can also candy viola flowers! Find out how from Allrecipes.com.
Violas in the garden
Grow violas as bedding and border plants. Want a Technicolor ground cover? These are perfect for the job. Violas tolerate juglone (not Juggalos—nobody tolerates Juggalos), the toxin produced by black walnut trees that kills many cultivated ornamentals. What's more, as woodland plants, they can handle light shade cast by these and other big trees.
Violas tend to have a daintier and perkier shape than their larger pansy cousins, and they're adorable in small containers and hanging baskets. They're early-season ornamentals, ideal for planting in bulb beds.
They're sweetly fragrant, though they contain a chemical that temporarily stuns the olfactory receptors, so enjoy that first sniff and then go enjoy the rest of your garden for a few minutes before coming back for seconds.
Violas have five rounded, overlapping petals: two matching opposite petals reaching to the left and right (imagine an elephant's ears) and a third pointing downward; this petal is on the front "layer." Two larger petals rise from behind these three, though there may be some "shuffling." The foliage is ovate to oblong, with blunt serrations along the edges. Viola leaves and stems tend to be a bit lighter green than the pansy's.
By default, wild violas are lavender to purple with bright gold centers. Other popular colors include solid gold, red, yellow, and white. There aren't as many bicolored or tricolored varieties as there are in the Viola x wittrockiana species, but those that are available are delightfully outrageous. One of our favorites is King Henry, with its bright orange centers ringed with vivid blue against a deep purple, velvety background.
Here are the basic stats for violas. Be sure to check your seed packet for variety-specific instructions and growing preferences:
- USDA Hardiness Zones: Short-lived perennials that overwinter in zones 6 through 11. Almost always grown as an annual here or elsewhere.
- Sunlight Preferences: Full sun, with afternoon shade in hot summer areas.
- Moisture Requirements: Let the top inch of soil dry out in between watering, or keep them consistently moist (not wet); ground-level watering is best.
- Soil Preferences: Well-drained, humus-rich soil; 5.4 to 5.8 pH.
- Plant Height: 6" to 8" tall.
- Plant Width: 6" to 12" spread.
- Growth Habit: Upright, though some are spreading or sprawling.
We'll get into some bloom-extending tips in just a minute, but here's a way to use them to their fullest: Save some of your viola seeds to plant in portable containers. When the summer gets hot, you can move them into the shade, or even bring them indoors if you have a sunny spot in which to keep them. Potted violas make great living centerpieces for backyard picnics and weddings. And they're fantastic gifts!
Maintenance, pests, and diseases
Cut back the plants by about half to 3/4 when the bloom tapers off in mid-summer—there's a good chance you'll get another round of flowers in early fall. Mulching will help even out the soil temperatures, keeping the roots cool while preventing moisture loss.
Violas are deer-resistant, but slugs and snails like their tender foliage. Watch out for spider mites and aphids, too. Overwatering, high humidity, and poor air circulation encourage root rot and leaf fungus, so plan accordingly. Again, water at soil level whenever possible, or water early in the day to allow the leaves and flowers to thoroughly dry.
Fertilize your violas with liquid 15-2-20 fertilizer every two weeks until the summer heat kicks in, and then use an even 20-20-20 to encourage new growth and blooms for early fall. Note, this schedule works well for pansies, too.
At the end of the season, remove all frost-killed foliage. Don't compost any plants that show signs of disease.
Growing violas from seed
Dig in 1 to 3 inches of rotted manure or aged, screened compost into the top 12 inches of soil, but don't overdo it. Remove any dead foliage and debris from the previous season, and any clods.
Violas are easy to start indoors, though they prefer cooler germinating temperatures than what we'd appreciate in our homes. A sunny garage, greenhouse, cold-frame, or the dashboard of an abandoned car will work fine if there's plenty of available artificial or natural light, and if the temperatures stay within the recommended range.
- Seed Treatment: None required.
- When to Plant Outdoors: The best time to direct-sow pansies is when the ground temperatures hover between 45° F and 65°F.
- When to Plant Indoors: 6 to 8 weeks before your last spring frost.
- Seed Depth: 1/8" to 1/4".
- Seed Spacing: Sow, thin, or transplant 6" apart; give more room if you're planting in humid regions or among plants requiring consistent moisture.
- Days to Germination: 10 to 21 days at about 55°F.
Harden off your violas for about a week before you transplant them. University of Georgia's agricultural extension department—who deserves credit for much of our viola data—recommends dousing your beds with liquid 15-2-20 fertilizer immediately before transplanting to help get your violas off to a good start.
Plant them in the early evening or on a cloudy day to reduce heat shock. Be sure to dig a hole wide enough to accommodate the root ball with some room to spare. They're among the easiest ornamentals to transplant, but a little extra attention will always improve their vitality when growing violas from seed.
Pick our violas! Shop with Seed Needs
Can't decide if you want to grow violas or pansies from seed this season? Why not grow both? They're so similar, it's easy (and legit) to refer to them by the same name. But sometimes, a name really does make a difference, and we've been building ours through dedicated customer care and by selling the freshest, highest-quality seeds for 13 years.Contact us if you'd like more information on our violas, pansies, and other ornamentals, and don't forget we have a growing selection of high-quality, open-pollinated heirloom veggies and herbs!