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Viola ‘Dynamite Blotch’ (photo courtesy of Thomas J. Story)
Viola ‘Dynamite Blotch’ (photo courtesy of Thomas J. Story)

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Zones A1-A3, 1-45, H1, H2
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Full, Partial, Shade
Regular Water
Moderate

Viola

Viola, Violet, Pansy
Violaceae
Annuals, Perennials, Flowers

Botanically speaking, violas, pansies, and almost all violets are perennials belonging to the genus Viola. However, violas and pansies are usually treated as annuals, invaluable for winter and spring bloom in mild-winter areas, for spring-through-summer color in colder climates. Typically used for mass color in borders and edgings, as covers for spring-flowering bulbs, and in containers. Violets are more often used as woodland or rock garden plants.

Violas and ­pansies take sun or partial shade; violets grow in part or full shade (except as noted), but most are natives of deciduous forests and bloom best with at least some sun during the flowering season.

Almost all violets have two kinds of flowers: normal, conspicuous ones that rise above the foliage and may be pollinated and set seed, and short-stemmed, inconspicuous cleistogamous (Greek for “closed spouse”) flowers that set copious seed without pollination and produce offspring identical to the parent. Many violets also spread by above­ground runners. Some reproduce so freely they can crowd out other small plants.

Violas and pansies have such complex ancestries that many botanists are unwilling to assign them to species, preferring to list them by variety name. However, it will avoid confusion if we retain these plants under their former names, invalid though they now may be.

In cold-winter climates, set out nursery plants of pansies and violas in spring for summer bloom; in mild climates, plant in autumn for winter-to-spring (or longer) bloom. Or start from seed: in cold climates, sow in mid- to late summer and overwinter seedlings in cold frame until spring; or sow indoors in winter, plant in spring. In mild-winter areas, sow in mid- to late summer, plant out in fall. To prolong bloom, pick flowers (with some foliage) regularly and remove faded blooms before they set seed. In hot areas, plants get ragged by midsummer and should be removed.

Viola cornuta
Viola cornuta

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Viola cornuta

Grows to 6–8 in. high and 8 in. wide, with smooth, wavy-edged leaves. Purple, pansylike, slender-spurred flowers about 1/2 in. across. Modern strains and varieties are complex hybrids with larger, shorter-spurred flowers; they come in solid colors (purple, blue, yellow, apricot, ruby red, white) or with elaborate markings (“faces”). Plants in the frost-tolerant Penny series grow 4–6 in. tall and wide, with spring and fall flowers in bold colors. Sorbet strain comes in pastel bicolors; tolerates heat and cold.

Some nurseries offer English violas—named varieties propagated by cuttings or division. These form 2-ft.-wide clumps and are reliably perennial.

Viola hederacea

From Australia. Grows to 1–4 in. high; eventually covers several feet, spreading by runners at a slow to moderate rate. Kidney-shaped leaves to 1/2 in. long. Nearly spurless, 1/4–3/4-in. flowers—broader than high and rather flat—in summer. They come in violet, blue, or white; commonly seen form is white with heavy blue-violet veining in throat. ‘Baby Blue’ has sky blue flowers. Plants go dormant at about 30°F (–1°C). Use as a groundcover in light shade or (with abundant water) in sun.

Viola odorata
Viola odorata

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Viola odorata

The violet of song and story. Grows to 8 in. high and 1/2 ft. wide. In cool, mild climates, can spread widely by seeds and runners, possibly becoming a pest. Dark green, heart-shaped, 2 1/2-in.-long leaves with toothed margins. Fragrant, short-spurred flowers 3/4 in. or wider in deep violet, bluish rose, or white. Tolerates full sun in cool-summer areas. For better spring display, remove runners and shear rank growth in late fall, then apply a complete fertilizer in earliest spring.

Viola pedata

So named because its finely divided leaves resemble a bird’s foot. Forms a clump to 2 in. high and 4 in. wide; does not spread by runners. Blooms from early spring to early summer; 4-in. stems bear inch-wide, typically two-tone violet-blue flowers with darker veining. Not as easy to grow as other violets; likes excellent drain­age, filtered sun or high shade, and acidic soil.

Viola tricolor
Viola tricolor

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Viola tricolor

From Europe and Asia. Perennial grown as a cool-season annual. Spring bloomer to 6–12 in tall and broad; spreads widely by profuse self-sowing. Oval, deeply lobed leaves to 1 1/4 in. long. Pert, 1/2–3/4-in., velvety purple-and-yellow or blue-and-yellow flowers are the original wild pansies. Same planting and care as pansy. Crosses with closely related small-flowered species have produced forms with flowers in violet, blue, white, yellow, lavender, mauve, apricot, orange, red—with or without markings (“faces”).

Viola x wittrockiana

Perennial grown as a cool-season annual. Erect and bushy to 6–10 in. high and 9–12 in. wide. Many strains with 2–4-in. flowers in white, blue, mahogany red, rose, yellow, apricot, and purple; also bicolors and multicolor blends. Most have dark blotches on the lower three petals; such flowers are often said to resemble faces. Shiny green leaves are oval to heart-shaped, slightly lobed, 1 1/2 in. or longer.

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