Violas are the cool weather darlings of the flower world that spring up almost everywhere sporting as many different names as they do colors. While common to most gardeners, I never tire of them. Every spring I eagerly set out containers filled with their assorted colors. They encourage thoughts of sunshine and cheer, warming up my chilly winter brain and bringing color to the early rainy days of spring.
My Cool Weather Darlings
Others may dream of spring tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils, but I love cascading baskets filled with sweetly scented, minty flavored violas. I don’t fret too much about the weather with these little ones. They can handle temperatures down to 30° F. The spring rains do a stellar job of keeping them watered for me. Add a little morning sun, and they flourish well into the hot days of summer for me. At that point, I clip them back, keep them watered, and make sure they’re out of the direct afternoon summer sun. They reward my attentiveness with a fresh flourish of blooms in the fall. The timing is perfect because many of my other annuals are shutting down for the season.
I also love them for their different colors, sizes and textures. Violas belong to the Violaceae family along with their sisters, the violets. It’s a big family with over 806 species in 25 generas. When I began growing violas I became totally confused as to which were pansies, violas, Johnny-jump-ups and host of other look-alike flowers with different names. Some of the flowers were tiny, 1-1½ inches in diameter. Others hosted blooms between 2-3 inches in diameter. They came in solid colors of white, purple, yellow, orange, and red. I also saw them in multiple colors of white, purple, and gold. I’d check the plant tag and found a variety of names used to describe them. I remember thinking, “What’s going on here? Which is which?” If you’ve ever wondered how to tell a viola from a pansy, here’s a few tips.
- First, all of them are violas. That makes it a lot easier. When in doubt, call them a viola and you’ll be right. The word pansy is taken from the French word, pensees, and means thoughts. Historically, violas are considered the flower of thoughts. Which makes perfect sense to me. They are the flower known to heal or soothe the heart and the mind. If you live in a harsher climate like I do, it’s no wonder we love these little gems so much in spring!
- Viola tricolors are the smallest of the violas and are also known as wild pansy. These flowering herbs were found popping up all over Europe and Northern America, growing in wastelands, fields and hedgerows. They were given fun names like Johnny-Jump-Ups, Kiss Me Behind The Garden Gate, and Monkey’s Face. Traditionally their colors are white, purple, and yellow, which also earned them the reputation as the Trinity Herb. The Viola tricolors are often used by herbalists for medicinal/healing treatments. They are perennials through Zone 4.
- Viola x wittrockianas are the much cultivated larger flowers often called garden pansy. They come in a variety of colors from white to maroon to deep purple. I often see these in front-yard window boxes. They’re large enough to see from the street. They were developed from a perennial, but are typically treated like annuals blooming from June to September, with a lag in blooms during the hotter summer days.
- Viola cornutas are an evergreen perennial (zones 6-11) with tufted leaves. They aren’t as cool-loving as some of the other violas and are typically grown as an annual.
Now that I’ve shared three distinct categories, don’t get too hung up on any of that when you go to the garden center. What???? Much of what is sold now are hybrids. A reputable garden center should stock what grows the best in your climate. The beauty is now you’re a bit more knowledgeable, and you can have fun looking for the color and size that fits your style the best.
Bringing Home Violas
Once I get my violas home, I have a lots of fun. Since I purchase my smaller, V. tricolors, from a non-pesticide-using source, I like to put them in my salads and decorate other treats with them. They have a very distinct wintergreen flavor. When pared with a light vinaigrette dressing it makes a stellar spring salad. The flowers also look adorable on cupcakes and cakelettes which is a perfect way to use them on Mother’s Day as well as at baby and wedding showers.
This season, I re-purposed a mesh popcorn popper into a pansy planter. I lined it with burlap, found a plastic container with drainage holes that fit snugly into the popcorn popper, then added my violas.
A more practical use is medicinal teas. One can be made with the viola leaves (violet leaves also may used). Viola leaves are cooling, cleansing and anti-inflammatory. They’ve been known to reduce fevers and swollen glands, reduce fluid retention and blood pressure. They’ve also been used to treat gout, rheumatoid arthritis, and respiratory disorders. (Reader’s Note: This information is for educational purposes only. Please consult your health provider for additional information before using.)
Violas Around Town
While violas are smashing in containers all by themselves, they also look great when combined with other cool weather loving flowers and greens.
I saw these kaleidoscope bowls this week at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. The first time I saw something like this was last year at the Minnesota State Fair. The idea is to spin the bowl while looking through the brass kaleidoscope tube. As the bowl spins, the flowers meld and shape themselves into different patterns. Wild. If you have kids, or just think like a kid, this might be a fun project to create at home using your own kaleidoscope and a lazy Susan rotating tray.
If you’re thinking of coming to the Twin Cities area, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is hosting an entire exhibit of these different bowls. Some are single bowls displays, some are double bowls. They’re all within walking distance of the main Visitor Center. Young and old will find them entertaining.
They’re filled with raucously colored flowers. Many are brimming with a variety of colorful violas.
Whether spinning or sitting, I love using bowls of darling pansies to warm up my spring garden. 🙂
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