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 fall, winter, and spring bloom in mild-winter areas, for spring-through-early-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, though pansies will bloom longer into spring if given afternoon shade. Violets grow in part or full shade, but most are natives of deciduous forests and bloom best with at least some sun during the flowering season. Violas are tougher than pansies, more tolerant of both heat and cold.
Almost all violets have two kinds of flowers: normal, con- spicuous ones that are held above the foliage and may be pollinated and set seed, and short-stemmed, inconspicuous cleistogamous (Greek for closed mouth) flowers that set seed without pollination and produce copious 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 selection name. However, we believe it will avoid confusion if we retain these plants under their former names, invalid though they now may be.
V. affinis (V. sororia affinis). LECONTE VIOLET. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. Native from New England south to Georgia and Alabama, west to Wisconsin. To 3 in. tall, spreading wider, with small, triangular, wavy-toothed leaves. Dark-veined violet flowers, white at petal bases and centered with a lighter eye, open above the foliage in spring.
V. blanda. SWEET WHITE VIOLET. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. From eastern North America. To 23 in. high, spreading indefinitely by runners. Fragrant white flowers with purple veining have sharply reflexed petals. Likes moist soil with lots of organic material.
V. cornuta. VIOLA. Perennials grown as cool-season annuals. Zones US, MS, LS, CS, TS; USDA 6-11. Native to Spain. To 68 in. high and 8 in. wide, with smooth, wavy-edged leaves. Purple, pansylike, slender-spurred flowers about 112 in. across. Modern strains and selections 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 Sorbet and Penny series are top performers in the South; Gem and Jewel series do very well too.
V. cucullata (V. obliqua). MARSH BLUE VIOLET. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. From eastern and central North America. To 6 in. high, 10 in. wide. Toothed, heart-shaped leaves to 4 in. across. Blue, 34-in.-wide flowers are held well above the leaves in early spring. Good ground cover; no runners, but self-sows liberally and can become a pest. Thrives in moist and wet soils. 'Alba' has white flowers. The violet often sold as 'White Czar'white with yellow throat veined in blackis a selection of this species; the name, however, correctly belongs to an old variety of V. odorata.
V. odorata. SWEET VIOLET. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. The violet of song and story. To 8 in. high, 112 ft. wide. Probably native to Europe. Dark green, heart-shaped, 212-in.-long leaves with toothed margins. Fragrant, short-spurred flowers to 34 in. wide or wider in deep violet, bluish rose, or white. Selections include 'Alba' (white), 'Rosina' (pink), 'Royal Elk' (violet), and 'Royal Robe' (deep violet). For better spring display, remove runners and shear rank growth in late fall, then apply a complete fertilizer in earliest spring.
V. pedata. BIRD'S-FOOT VIOLET. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. From eastern North America. So named because its finely divided leaves resemble a bird's foot. Forms a clump to 2 in. high, 4 in. wide; does not spread by runners. Blooms 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.
V. sororia. DOORYARD VIOLET. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. From eastern and central North America. To 46 in. high, 8 in. wide; does not spread by runners but self-sows freely. Roughly heart-shaped leaves to 5 in. wide vary from densely hairy to almost smooth. Good ground cover under woodland shrubs. Nearly scentless, 12- to 34-in. flowers in spring to early summer are held close to leaves; colors range from white to red-violet to blue-violet. Most commonly seen are the following smooth-leafed selections (all come true from seed): 'Albiflora', pure white with yellow in throat; 'Freckles', white liberally spotted with blue; 'Priceana' (popularly known as Confederate violet), white with blue-violet veining in throat.
V. tricolor. JOHNNY-JUMP-UP. Perennial grown as cool-season annual. Zones US, MS, LS, CS, TS; USDA 6-11. From Europe, Asia. Spring bloomer to 612 in. tall and broad; spreads widely by profuse self-sowing. Oval, deeply lobed leaves to 1 14 in. long. Pert, 12- to 34-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, redwith or without markings (faces). Flowers of 'Molly Sanderson' (V. 'Molly Sanderson') are very dark purplealmost black.
V. walteri. WALTER'S VIOLET. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native from South Carolina to Florida and west to Texas, Ohio. To 68 in. tall, wide spreading, with mottled, dark green foliage, often tinged purple beneath. Stems root where they touch the ground, producing new plants. In spring, bears blue-violet flowers with dark veins and white petal bases, paler eye. 'Silver Gem' has silvery foliage.
V. x wittrockiana. PANSY. Perennial grown as cool-season annual. Zones US, MS, LS, CS, TS; USDA 6-11. To 610 in. high, 912 in. wide. Many strains with 2- to 4-in. flowers in white, blue, mahogany-red, rose, yellow, apricot, purple; also bicolors. Most have dark blotches on the lower three petals; such flowers are often said to resemble faces. Shiny green leaves are oval to nearly heart shaped, slightly lobed, 112 in. or longer.
Series are almost too numerous to mention; here are just a few. Heat-tolerant Antique Shades boasts a mix of jewel-toned flowers to 3 in. across. Crystal Bowl is a compact grower, with a profusion of small flowers in vivid, clear colors without faces. Heat- and cold-tolerant Majestic Giants II sports large blooms, to 4 in. across, in the full color range, including many bicolors. Strong-growing Matrix freely produces large blooms in a wide color range, with and without faces. The floriferous 'Pandora's Box' has blooms in rose, pink, orange, and yellow. Plants in the heavy-blooming Panola series, also available in the full range of colors and faces, produce medium-size, thick-petaled flowers that resist damage from rain and snow.
A group of recently developed trailing pansies grow quickly to 68 in. tall and 2430 in. wide; they work beautifully as ground covers or spilling from hanging baskets and window boxes. Look for the vigorous, long-blooming Cool Wave series in yellow, blue, purple, white, and bicolors. Freefall series features rich, saturated colors. WonderFall series is similar but also offers red and pink flowers.
In the Upper South (USDA 6), set out nursery plants of pansies and violas in spring for summer bloom; elsewhere, plant in autumn for winter-to-spring (or longer) bloom. Or start from seed: In the Upper South (USDA 6), sow in mid- to late summer and overwinter seedlings in cold frame until spring; or sow indoors in winter, plant in spring. Elsewhere, 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 mid- to late spring and should be removed.