Viola & Pansy

Pansies (Viola x wittrockiana) and violas (Viola v wittrockiana) & are plants I often associate with the Victorian Era; lace and tea in the parlor, and turn-of-the-century advertising illustrations of pansy posies with a child’s head in the centre. A strange juxtaposition between eerie beauty, bizarre old-time artwork, and Victorian formality attracts me to planting and growing hordes of them every year despite what could be (for me anyway) a negative association with the formal gardens of yesteryear. Pansies used to be considered just another common filler plant. But not today. They have become a favourite of experts and gardeners in recent years, largely due to development of new, modern versions and renewed interest in older heirloom varieties. Among the more unusual pansies growing today are those with “faces” (blotch patterns on the petals), an heirloom variety with ruffled petals, and new colours such as the black pansy or the fama orange. In my part of the world (zone 5), pots of pansies are still one of the first signs of spring since their cold tolerance has them in full bloom while many spring flowering bulbs are just sprouting leaves.

  • Light: full sun to partial shade
  • Temperature: frost resistant. Intolerant of hot weather
  • Water: maintain moist soil. water regularly.
  • Fertilize: regularly to maintain bloom
  • General maintenance: deadhead regularly for continuous blooms
  • Sow Seeds: indoors 8-10 weeks before moving outdoors. Where winters are mild sow in late summer, in cold winter climates, sow in winter, plant out when ground is soft. Will self-sow.

Both the viola and the pansy are members of the genus violaceae, and of the violet family. The common blue and yellow viola cornuta or ‘Johnny jump-up’ is the wild viola that most species of viola can be tentatively traced back to. Pansies, from the French word for “thoughts” or “memories”, are actually bred from the viola but have been cultivated for thousands of years, so long that their origin is hard to trace. The result is a larger, more showy flower that is less hardy and tolerant of extremes in climactic conditions then the violas. Pansies and violas are perennial plants but are often treated as biennials or annuals depending on the climate they are grown in. In climates with hot summers and freezing winters, they thrive in the cool weather of spring but become sun scorched and die back in the heat of mid summer. If they are planted in late summer to fall they will thrive during this time of cool weather and die back once conditions shift to freezing. Few gardeners take advantage of this season to grow them, seeing them only as spring flowers. In regions where the winters are moderate to mild, pansies and violas will thrive as perennials all year round.

These days, such flowers decorate cakes and accompany salad greens. Trends in the kitchen in this case may help explain their popularity in the garden. Each variety has a different flavour and some are definitely superior to others. Growing your own flowers for eating assures you that the flowers have not been sprayed with chemical pesticides.

Pansies and violas are also dried in presses, put in frames or used for other decorations. Drying them is as simple as pressing fresh blooms between pages in a phone book.

Viola tricolor (the small standard purple and yellow one) has been used medicinally since ancient times. It was worn as a garland to prevent dizziness, and Athenians used it to “moderate anger”.1 Its leaves and flowers are anti-inflammatory and used today to treat skin disorders.

One of the results of thousands of years of cultivation is the assortment of colours, patterns and petal forms in which these plants are found. Both come in nearly every colour imaginable and many are bicolour or tricolour combinations. Most violas and some pansies have a distinct blotch pattern on the petals called a “face”. If you look closely it really does resemble a scowling face.

Violas and pansies are also one of the few plants whose seeds can be sown at awkward times of the year such as late summer or mid-fall. Sowing seeds in the garden for off-season blooms is as easy as scattering a handful of seeds over exposed soil. It’s a good way to save money since garden centers tend to overchange on four or six plug trays in the fall season. Pansies and violas will often reseed themselves in the garden for years to come. It has become popular in the last few years to naturalize them into lawns by digging small holes and growing them individually as pockets of colour.

Instead of settling for the usual potted mums this season, try your hand at closely packed mixes of pansies and violas. With almost no effort you can have the look of spring and summer in your garden this fall.

  1. Ody, Penelope. “The Complete Medicinal Herbal”, Canada: Key Porter Books, 1993.

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