In the Garden: Pansies and Violets

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Studio Shot of Multicolored Pansy Flowers Isolated on White Background. Large Depth of Field (DOF). Macro.

I can hardly see pansies without thinking of the quotation attributed to the late Christopher Lloyd, British gardener/curmudgeon. During a tour of the southern United States, Lloyd finally snapped, blurting out, “Do you think you have quite enough pahn-zezz??!!” Poor little pansies. It’s not their fault they’ve become popular to the point of cliché.

Pansies are but one member of the genus Viola, in turn part of the Violet family (Violaceae). We think of violets as herbaceous plants, which they indeed are in our part of the world, but a few are shrubs or small trees. Among the 25 genera comprising the Violet family, most are woody plants. More common in the northern hemisphere, violets can also be found south of the Equator. I spent a few minutes looking at Chilean violets online, in particular one species native to volcanic rocks, resembling a cross between the typical violets, African violets (no relation, actually) and a cow flop. Closer to home, about three dozen violet species can be found growing in Virginia, most of them natives.

All pansies are violas, but not all violas are pansies. All members of the genus Viola have five-petaled flowers, but their arrangement differs slightly. The True Violets have two petals pointing up and three downward, while the True Pansies have four petals pointing upward and one down. The common garden pansy is a complex hybrid, known to horticulturists as Viola x wittrockiana; luckily you won’t need to know that name to find them at garden centers. In the fall their cheery faces will be smiling at you in a dizzying array of colors. Although they will grow as perennials in most of the U.S., pansies are generally treated as annuals, planted in the fall and growing into the next spring.

The name pansy derives from the French pensée, thought. In Hamlet, Ophelia distributes flowers, remarking, “There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts.” Pansies go by many other names, often poetic or whimsical, including “Love in Idleness,” “Heart’s-ease,” or “Jump Up and Kiss Me.” The Heart’s-ease figures prominently in Midsummer Night’s Dream as a love potion, although Shakespeare was presumably referring to Viola tricolor, one of the pansy’s wild forbears.

If you want to venture away from the ubiquitous pansies, a few violas may be garden worthy. The little Johnny-Jump-Up (Viola tricolor) can charm one with its deep violet, light blue and gold flowers, although this annual (or short-lived perennial) may be weedier than most folks will tolerate. The Horned or Tufted Violet (V. cornuta) hails from the Pyrenees. A vigorous grower that can serve as a ground cover, Horned Violet generally tolerates heat well; it may stress out a bit in midsummer, however. Cultivars are available in white, blue, yellow, apricot and the typical violet.

Perennial plant guru Alan Armitage, author of Herbaceous Perennial Plants, reports that the Labrador Violet (V. labradorica) does well in his Georgia garden, despite its northern provenance. Flowers are mauve suffused with purple; if you want additional interest, the variety purpurea adds some bonus color in the new foliage during spring and autumn. Given shade and moisture, Labrador violet will fill in garden areas rapidly and acts as a good companion to foamflowers and mayapples.

Bird’s Foot Violet—the leaves are dissected like a bird’s foot—is native to much of the eastern and central U.S. and does well given the right growing conditions. Unlike some species that require moist soil, Bird’s Foot Violet demands good drainage and should be planted in a shady location, either on a slope or in gravelly soil. The southern variety concolor bears larger flowers, with a white spot at the base of the lower petal.

Armitage states that he “would not garden without” the Sweet violet, V. odora. As the name suggests, the flowers are fragrant, although the nose only perceives the odor for a short time. It was once raised in great quantities for the perfume industry, but eventually the active chemical, ionine, was produced synthetically. Flower markets in Athens displayed the Sweet Violet as early as 400 B.C., and it became the symbol of the city; much later it became the symbol of Napoleon’s supporters following his exile to Elba. Cultivars come in various shades of blue, lavender, violet and white. Sweet violet will take sun with supplemental water; otherwise, it prefers moist shade.

A few violet species come with a stern warning from Armitage, as in, “I would not knowingly plant any of the native blue violets in the garden due to their self-seeding habit.” Viola cucullata, V. papillionacea and V. sororia all are in this group. You have been warned. I suspect that for many of us at least one of these species is already present on our property, never to be banished.

I hesitate to reveal my sources, but if you want to learn more about violets and other plants that grow wild in Virginia, native and exotic, I recommend Weakley’s Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora (vaplantatlas.org). It provides useful photographs of each plant, along with a map of its distribution by county, as well as a description of its habitat. The digital atlas is a companion to the Flora of Virginia book, as well as to an app of the same name.

Enjoy your pansies and violets, no matter what Christopher Lloyd had to say about them. 

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