Violas, Violets, and Pansies: How to Grow and Care for These Frost-Ready Flowers
Violas, violets, and pansies, what is the difference, and how do they grow? In this article, gardening expert Melissa Strauss will answer these questions and talk about cultivating these charming plants.
What do violas, violets, and pansies have in common? All of these plants fall under the same genus, which is Viola. Within the Viola genus are more than 500 species of flowering herbaceous annuals and short-lived perennials. Many of the types that we see at local nurseries are varieties of pansies (Viola x wittrickiana), Johnny-jump-ups (Viola tricolor), and violets (several species including V. sorolia and V. odorata).
Violas are cool-weather plants, preferring spring and fall weather to hot summers. They are small plants with brightly colored flowers with a long blooming season. If they are cared for and kept hydrated in the warmer months, most of these plants will flower in the spring and again in the fall.
Violas Plant Overview
Plant Type Herbaceous Perennial
Native Area Eastern and Central North America, Europe, Asia
Exposure Full sun to partial shade
Watering Requirements Moderate
Pests and Diseases Aphids, Spider Mites, Slugs and Snails, Anthracnose, Black Root Rot, Root & Crown Rot, Gray Mold
Soil Type Rich, Loamy, Moist
Soil pH Slightly Acidic (5.4-6.2)
Violas are first described historically by the ancient Greeks. They have long existed in historical writings, and they pop up often in Greek mythology.
For hundreds of years, violas have been cultivated in Europe for their medicinal and cosmetic purposes. Their scent is a popular one in women’s fragrances and for the treatment of various digestive issues and sore throats. All parts of the plant are edible, with the flowers prized for their sweet and mild flavor.
In the early 1800s, Josephine de Beauharnais, the wife of Napolean Bonaparte, collected and cultivated violets. When Napolean was banished, he remarked that he would return when the violets were in season. The flowers became a symbol of sedition as a result.
Later on, Violas were cultivated widely in France and the UK. In the US, they gained popularity for their use as a fragrance and being a favorite of Queen Victoria. Carl Linnaeus was responsible for the first formal record of the genus in 1753.
The flowers were reputedly made into a tincture believed to heal a broken heart, earning them the nickname ‘hearts ease.’ William Shakespeare immortalized this purpose in his Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Violas are a large genus whose native range spans at least three continents. The sweet violet (V. odorata) is native to Europe and Asia. In North America, violas have a wide native range, spanning most of the East Coast, well into Central North America, and along the West Coast.
In nature, violas are typically woodland plants. They live in the understory, where they get plenty of moisture and have some protection from the intense summer sun. They will grow in full sun if given enough moisture, but they prefer some shade.
Violas are best known for their pretty flowers that have a sweet, soft perfume. The size and color of the blooms can vary widely, with wild violets having smaller flowers and more commercially available varieties having large, multicolored flowers.
Violas and violets generally have smaller, less flashy flowers than their hybrid cousin, the pansy. Pansies are bred to have showy flowers in a variety of different colors. The flowers have five rounded petals. Many varieties have dark markings toward the center of the flower that resemble small, sometimes sad, and sometimes cheerful faces.
Viola plants are small, not typically growing more than six inches tall, although they can have a trailing habit, which makes them great for hanging baskets.
The leaves are usually bright green and tend to be heart-shaped, although some have more of a rounded end, while others have a more exaggerated point. They produce a single flower per stem, and the leaves and the flowers are culinary favorites.
Violas have had many uses throughout the years. Their use in perfumes and other cosmetic preparations is the most well-known use. Their delicate flowers’ light and sweet fragrance is considered a very pleasing scent, so it is often used to fragrance soaps, lotions, and other personal care products.
Regarding their medicinal usefulness, violas have traditionally been used to treat skin conditions and as a diuretic. They are believed to have purifying and anti-inflammatory properties. While we don’t profess to know whether or not violas treat these ailments, we can safely say that the plants are edible!
That brings us to their value in the culinary world. Violas have beautiful flowers. They are delicate, but surprisingly, they hold up very well in baking. Sugared pansies make a gorgeous decoration for baked goods. The leaves and flowers can be used in a salad or as a garnish.
Where to Buy Violas, Violets, and Pansies
Violas are easy to find, especially those varieties that fall under the pansy umbrella. Pansies tend to have larger and more colorful flowers. They are hybrid varieties bred for their larger and more flamboyant blooms and their general hardiness as garden plants.
You can pick up seeds for these ‘Got the Blues’ pansies at home. Many varieties have become quite popular in recent years, with flowers that bloom in nearly every color of the rainbow.
I prefer to keep my violas in containers, as I feel I can control their moisture level best this way. Moisture is important to these plants; they will let you know when they are thirsty by wilting – flowers, leaves, and all.
If you plant your violas in the ground, know the variety and determine how much sun they can tolerate. Some of the newer hybrids are much more tolerant of full sun situations. Space plants 6”-12” apart. Plant only as deep as the root ball.
Violas are frost tolerant, and they prefer cooler weather. The ideal time to plant these pretty flowers is fall or early spring. In more temperate climates, violas planted in the fall will continue to bloom straight through to the spring.
They will bloom until the arrival of consistent freezing temperatures in cooler regions. In spring, wait until the threat of prolonged freezing weather has passed before planting them outside. For fall planting, start seeds indoors in midsummer. You can start your spring violas indoors about six weeks before your last anticipated frost date.
Keep your new plants moist but not waterlogged. In cooler weather, violas can go longer between waterings. Once the weather begins to warm up, you will notice that the soil dries out faster, and your violas will appreciate increased moisture.
How to Grow
Violas are low-maintenance plants that happily produce flowers for an extended period if planted in the right conditions. Give them the moisture they need and some protection from the afternoon sun, and your violas will bloom in no time.
Violas tolerate a wide range of conditions, particularly in the cooler months. Some of the more common hybrid pansies have been bred to tolerate additional sun and heat so that they last longer, continuing to flower into the early summer months.
In general, partial shade is the natural state for these plants. They are woodland understory plants, but they like having at least four hours of sun daily. Some hybrids will thrive better with six or more hours of sun exposure daily.
If you are planting your violas in the ground, consider the amount of sun they will receive in the afternoon. Planting your violas in a spot where they will receive four to six hours of direct sun early in the day will make them happiest. Protection in the afternoon will prolong their blooming time.
Water is another factor that will fluctuate with the weather. Violas like water and maintaining the right moisture level are integral to their flower production. Too much water, and you risk root rot and other fungal issues. Too little water, and you are unlikely to see many flowers.
An underwatered viola is easy to spot. The leaves and flowers will droop and wither to let you know the soil is dry. A good rule of thumb is to water whenever the top inch of soil is dry and water thoroughly. This may only be once per week in the cooler months, but it could change to daily watering as the temperature rises.
Water well, soaking the soil and allowing the water to run out the bottom if your pansies are in containers. Saturate the soil if they are planted in the ground. If you notice the soil surface is not drying out, ease up a bit on watering. There is always more moisture below the surface than we can see at the surface.
Violas thrive in rich, loamy soil with good drainage and moisture retention. That may sound contradictory, but we are looking for a balance between soil that holds some moisture near the roots and drains freely so that excess water doesn’t pool and cause fungal issues.
Amend your viola soil with plenty of organic compost. Worm castings are great for amending your soil. You can also use manure or compost made from kitchen and yard waste. These soil amendments will enrich your soil over an extended time. They also help to make the soil more acidic.
Violas and pansies like slightly acidic soil. Keeping your soil pH around 5.5 will help to break down the nutrients that violas need to produce healthy green growth and colorful flowers.
Adding the soil amendments we discussed is a good way to lower your soil’s pH in the long term. You can also use fertilizers containing ammonium to quickly acidify the soil.
Temperature and Humidity
Violas are happiest when the weather is cool and dry. The ideal temperature range for these plants is between 40°-60°F. These incredible flowering plants can withstand temperatures into the single digits, although they won’t come through it unscathed.
Prolonged periods of temperatures below 25°F will be taxing on the viola’s foliage. Cold damage will appear in faded and wilting leaves and damage to flowers. Overall, violas are considered to be very cold-tolerant. My pansies survived four days of temperatures in the 20s last winter here in zone 8.
If you know that your pansies are in for a cold snap, there are things you can do to help them through. Water them generously before the cold rolls in, and cover them lightly with breathable material. Don’t use plastic, which will hold in cold and moisture and cause more harm than good.
Violas like to be fertilized. They will bloom without extra fertilization, but they will bloom much more heartily if they are given adequate nutrients. We talked about amending the soil before planting your violas. This is a great way to add slow-release fertilizing agents to your soil.
Mixing slow-release fertilizers into the soil before planting will help provide your violas with consistent nutrients. A second application midway through the season will help to keep the nutrients available.
Water soluble fertilizers are another great way to deliver readily available nutrients to your violas. If you choose to go this route, choose a fertilizer that is higher in phosphorus. Phosphorus is responsible for helping fortify cell walls and developing strong, healthy flowers. A formula of 15-30-15 is perfect for violas and can be administered every two to three weeks during their growing season.
Violas are perennial in zones 6-11. This means that if planted and cared for properly, they will return year after year. Sometimes, violas can become leggy and scraggly by the end of the season. It is best to cut them back during their growing season. Wait until early fall to prune them back, and you will be awarded with bushier growth.
Violas also like to be deadheaded. Removing the spent flowers from your plants will improve the plant’s overall appearance and encourage new growth and more flowering. Use a sharp pair of harvesting snips to remove spent flowers gently. Snip the stem just above the nearest set of leaves.
Growing in Containers
I prefer to plant my violas and pansies in containers because it allows me to move them around as the weather gets warmer, giving them additional shade during the warmer months. The type of container is not important as long as it has adequate drainage. This helps to reduce the possibility of root rot.
Varieties that have a trailing habit look wonderful in hanging baskets. This is especially true of the Johnny-jump-up type of violas. They have small flowers and tend to trail, so they will spill over the side of a hanging container beautifully.
Truly, though, the sky is the limit. You can grow your violas in raised beds, clay pots, window boxes, and even in vertical planters. Keeping your violas in containers also makes it easier to protect them in cold weather.
Pansies can be propagated by seeds, cuttings, or by division. Division is the most commonly preferred method as it is faster and quickly creates a mature plant ready to bloom.
Viola seeds can be started indoors or outdoors, depending on the time of year and temperature. You can start your seeds indoors up to 10-12 weeks ahead of time, planting as early as January in colder climates.
- Start off with some cell trays and fill them with a dampened, loose, well-draining seed starting mix.
- Viola seeds are very small. Sprinkle them on the top of the soil and lightly press them in so they are barely covered with potting medium.
- Violas need darkness to germinate. Cover your seed trays with black plastic, or set them in a dark place to germinate.
- Mist your soil to keep it moist. Your seeds won’t germinate in dry soil.
- It takes about one to three weeks for viola seeds to germinate. Once they sprout, you can move them to a space with bright, indirect light. Grow lights work well at this point, as well.
- Maintain moisture in the soil until your seedlings are ready to go in the ground.
Violas can also be grown from cuttings, although this method has a lot of trial and error. If you have some patience, though, you can propagate this way.
- Take cuttings in the spring from new shoots. New shoots root more easily than mature stems, which tend to be hollow.
- Prepare your cell trays with a loose, well-drained, moistened potting medium.
- Cut your two-inch cuttings right below a stem joint, dip the end in rooting hormone, and place the cut end about one inch deep into the soil.
- Use a clear plastic bag or cell cover to create a greenhouse effect around your cuttings, and place them in a warm, sunny space.
- Roots should take about two weeks to form, and you can transplant the new plants when you see new foliage growth.
This is the most common and successful way to propagate violas, Divisions are best made in the spring. This is a great way to thin out your plants, which creates airflow and keeps them healthy.
- In early spring, gently dig up your viola roots.
- Divide the roots carefully, ensuring each division has adequate roots attached.
- You can use a cold frame to protect your new divisions while they establish themselves or bring them indoors or into a greenhouse.
- After three weeks, move them to their permanent location. It may take more time for these plants to flower than those you purchase at the nursery.
Violas and pansies are fairly hardy plants, but a handful of issues may materialize when cultivating them. Most have simple environmental solutions.
Short or Non-Existent Blooming Period
Since violas prefer cool weather, if they are planted late in the season or the weather gets unexpectedly warm, they may not bloom quite so well. Hot weather can stop these plants from blooming, which is a major disappointment.
Plant your violas when there is plenty of cool weather ahead. Keep them deadheaded for increased blooming. Another solution is to cut your violas back by about one-third. This will stimulate new growth and more flowering.
Violas have significant nutrient needs. If you notice your precious pansies looking chlorotic, shriveled, and stunted, there is a good chance of a nutrient deficiency.
A lack of nutrients can cause this, but it is likely nutrient lockup caused by a pH issue. Violas need acidic soil to break down the minerals they need.
Increasing the acidity of your soil will probably fix the issue and provide a more long-term solution. In the short term, however, you can give your violas a boost of the nutrients that the soil is lacking, which are most likely to be iron, boron, and magnesium.
Growths on Stems
Sometimes, violas get little wartlike growths on their stems due to too much water. This is called edema. It can result from too much water and cloudy or rainy weather.
Allow the soil to dry between waterings, but just the top inch. Remember that violas like moisture. They just don’t tolerate an excessive amount.
Pests and Diseases
As much as I would love to say that violas are pest and disease-resistant, they tend to be vulnerable to a handful of common insects and other maladies. Most damage can be mitigated by catching these issues early on.
Aphids are a common pest in the garden. They go after the stems and leaves of violas, piercing the skin and sucking out the sweet sap. They leave behind a nasty, sticky excrement called honeydew, which can cause mold to grow.
These insects have some great natural predators, so don’t abandon hope if you see these little green or brown bugs on your pansies. Encourage predators by planting diverse native plant species in the garden. You can also release ladybugs into the garden periodically. They are magnificent predators that will take care of the aphids quickly.
If you prefer, hose aphids off with a strong, direct spray from the hose. They are slow-moving and soft-bodied and cannot climb back up easily. If all else fails, insecticides will take care of aphids. Use them as a last resort, as they also harm beneficial insects.
Spider mites can be an issue as the weather warms up and in times of drought. The damage they inflict is similar to that of aphids, but spider mites are much smaller, so it is easy to miss them until they have done some damage. You may be able to detect them by their fine webbing under the leaves of plants.
Neem oil is good at eradicating spider mites. These mites are less like insects and are more closely related to spiders.
Slugs and Snails
These mucousy pests can make a mess of your pansies. They will munch on leaves and flowers overnight, and they can do a lot of damage quickly. You can remove these guys by hand or create other obstacles for them to get to your plants.
Snail traps are one way of disposing of these pests. Fill a dish with beer and sink the container so that the edges are level with the surrounding soil. The snails will fall in and drown. They also like to hide in cool, damp spaces during the day. You can leave a board trap slightly raised above the ground, and they will congregate beneath it during the daytime.
This fungal disease causes nasty yellow spots on your viola leaves and ruins the flowers. It travels on water droplets, typically transferring from an infected plant when the gardener is watering from overhead.
Remove any badly infected plants and prune away damaged areas to reduce the spread. Limit overhead watering if possible.
Black Root Rot
Another fungal disease, this disease will manifest as black discoloration traveling up the stems from the roots. Certain fungicides can help control it but not cure it completely. Affected plants should be removed and discarded. Avoid overwatering to stem the spread.
Root & Crown Rot
This fungus will manifest in a rotted, sunken crown of the plant, and then the plant will typically wilt and die. Planting your violas in an area with good drainage will typically prevent this disease. Fungicides cannot cure it, but they are great for prevention.
Gray mold caused by Botrytis fungus causes a grey, fuzzy mold to grow on the flowers and other parts of plants. The little gray spores are powdery and spread quickly. To prevent this fungus, maintain good drainage and air circulation around your plants. Certain fungicides are effective at treating gray mold.
I could go on all day about the many beautiful varieties of violas, violets, and pansies. There are so many wonderful species and hybrids. The great thing is that these plants are very affordable, and there is no reason you can’t grow many different varieties in your garden.
|botanical name Viola x wittrockiana ‘Halloween II’
|sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
|hardiness zones 4-10
I’m a sucker for black flowers, especially ones that bloom around Halloween, so this variety is aptly named to share its spooky shade with that spookiest of holidays. ‘Halloween II’ is a compact variety, growing up to about 8”. The flowers are stunning, velvety, true black with a bright yellow center and deep purple accents.
|botanical name Viola x wittrockiana ‘Moulin Rouge’
|sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
|hardiness zones 8-11
This stunning Italian hybrid will remind you of the ruffled skirts of dancing girls. The plant is small to mid-sized, and the flowers come in combinations of yellow, red, pink, and purple with deep red and purple markings.
The flowers are some of the most decorative of frilled varieties. Moulin Rouge has heavily ruffled petals that stand out in the garden.
|botanical name Viola cornuta ‘Amber Kiss’
|sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
|height Height: 4”-6”
|hardiness zones 4-9
This variety of V. cornuta is the most glorious shade of bright orange. The petals have a yellow radiance in the center, with delicate black markings that are lightly ruffled at the edges.
The plants are quite compact, only reaching about six inches tall at the most. They are fast-growing and low-maintenance.
|botanical name Viola cornuta ‘Etain’
|sun requirements Partial shade
|hardiness zones 5-8
Etain is a larger, rare variety of V. cornuta with large, lemon-yellow blossoms softly edged in lavender. This one is a prolific producer of wonderfully fragrant flowers.
The leaves are a deep olive green, strikingly contrasting with the glowing blooms. Give this one some shelter from the afternoon sun.
|botanical name Viola beckwithii
|sun requirements Full sun to partial shade
|height up to 20”
|hardiness zones 5-10
This species is native to the West Coast of the United States. It is typically a low-growing plant but can reach up to 20 inches tall under the right circumstances.
The flowers have two deep purple upper petals and three lower petals that are slightly to quite a bit lighter with a yellow accent toward the nectar-rich center.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are violas edible?
All parts of the viola plant are edible. The flowers can be sugared and used to garnish baked goods, and both the leaves and the flowers taste pleasant added to a salad.
Are violas invasive?
Most violas are not considered invasive. However, V. tricolor (Johnny-jump-up) is an aggressive self-seeder, so it can spread quickly, leading to its mention in the Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States.
When do violas bloom?
Violas bloom during the cooler months of the year. They will be early bloomers in the spring, typically flowering before most other plants. If maintained properly, they can bloom again in the fall.
Are violas annuals or perennials?
Many hybrid types are sold as annuals, but scientifically speaking, the genus comprises short-lived, herbaceous perennials. Many are cold hardy down to -20°F.
Violas, violets, and pansies are cheery, hardy, cool-weather bloomers that are big on personality and color. They make wonderful garnishes and additions to baked goods with their pleasing flavor, and their delicate fragrance has inspired perfumers worldwide. For such a small plant, these flowering perennials certainly do a good job of living up to their reputation.