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All About Viola

closeup of viola

Viola is a member of the largest genus of the Violet (Violaceae) family, which includes between 550- 600 species. While the term “pansy” often covers the entire violet family, the Viola, also known as “heartsease or commonly as Johnny-jump-up, is considered the smallest member of this large species, that blooms in a diverse range of colors and sizes.

It is a familiar sight in spring gardens all over the world, yet mostly in the northern hemisphere, where the diminutive, heart-shaped flowers, are grown as a biennial or annual, yet sometimes perennials coming back each year.

Viola is typically among the first flowers to bloom in spring, from seed that was sown in the fall or early spring. Plants thrive in full sun, or part shade, and will bloom over a long period of time if plants are kept dead-headed. All violas are herbaceous, dying back to the ground once they have bloomed and done for the season, perhaps to resurface again the following year, or to grow from self-sown seed left behind to germinate naturally.

Viola blossoms are prized for their delicate, lightly aromatic blossoms, and have long been associated with romance, yet the term “shrinking violet”, was coined to describe the look of the blossom; head bowed, growing in a shady corner while the showier flowers in the summer garden dominate. The pattern of the blossoms, five rounded petals, can resemble a small face, thought to look like someone whose furrowed brow resembled a saddened face, therefor, made into herbal tinctures that can be used as a antidote to cure heartbreak – thus the name “hearts ease.”

All About Viola: Origins and Uses

Originating in Europe, Asia and North Africa, Viola go back many centuries to when Arabic writers wrote extensively about violets, attributing them to cures involving the respiratory system, eyes, and skin. The aromatic qualities, especially of the V. Odorata variety, were once the key ingredient to perfume, yet strength varies between species. Viola blossoms are also prized as an edible flower for healthful salads or garnish, along with the leaves, which are slightly mucilaginous and considered high in Vitamins C. The roots are a strong purgative and should be avoided.

Viola tricolor, the most common annual with purple and yellow petals contains flavonoids, extremely high levels of rutin and salicylates that are anti-inflammatory, when made into a poultice can be used to heal bruising or reduce swelling. Tinctures, made by immersing the flowers and the leaves in an alcohol base, known as a tincture, are used for strengthening and calming the nervous system.

The word “Pansy” Is derived from the French word “pensee” which means “thought” giving this diminutive flower a powerful personality. Found throughout the works of William Shakespeare, in Hamlet associated with Ophelia, as well as Mid Summers Night Dream, when Oberon sends Puck to gather a flower, that maidens call “love in idleness” when transformed into a tonic “will make man or woman madly dote upon the next live creature it sees,” which it does, indeed!

viola rebecca
Plant <a href="/perennials/viola/viola-rebecca">Viola Rebecca</a> in containers to prevent the avid seeder from spreading, and for a dramatic display.

All About Violas: In the Garden

Violas are often spring blooming, and after flowering, seed capsules are formed that easily split open into three valves, capable of ejecting seeds a long distance away. Flowers color varies between varieties, ranging from violet, through shades of blue, yellow, white and cream.

Violas are reliable and easy to start from seed, yet since the seeds are tiny, plants are often preferred.

Many are bicolored, with markings that can resemble a small face, while others are single colored with a dark center.

While the difference between a pansy and a viola is mostly due to size, violas often produce more flowers per plant and are more heat tolerant. Plant in beds, or pots, and dig in plenty of compost to keep soil fertile and moist. Seeds can be sown in plug trays, or sprinkled directly on the prepared ground, rake into the soil, yet allow the seeds to be exposed to light in order to germinate, which should be 7- 10 days. Some gardeners prefer to sow seeds in late summer or fall, for the following years growth, to allow the young plants plenty of time to begin flowering.

For continuous long-lasting bloom, and to encourage bushier growth, pinch off the flower heads or remove the flower stem at the base. Like most annuals, once seeds are formed, the flowers will slow down and eventually stop producing. At the end of the growing season, pull plants to make room for summer and fall plantings, or allow plants to die back with roots intact.

Popular varieties include Viola tricolor, a classic Johnny-jump-up with purple petals, painted with black and yellow markings; Viola sororia, a small plant with delicate white petals and purple splotches; Viola odorata or sweet violet considered the most fragrant; and Viola biflora, the yellow wood violet found along woodland paths.

Viola are at their best when grouped together with spring bulbs, such as snowdrop bulbs species tulips, and bloom simultaneously along with aquilegia and bleeding heart in the spring. They are equally successful as a ground hugging plant in the garden as in a decorative container. Height ranges from 3 to 15 inches high, depending on the species.

About the Author: Ellen Ecker Ogden is the author of six books, including The Complete Kitchen Garden, featuring theme gardens and recipes for cooks who love to garden. She writes and lectures on kitchen garden design.

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