White and purple violets

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Violets

The Common Blue Violet, Viola sororia, is the state flower of 3 states in the USA: Rhode Island, Illinois, and New Jersey.

Violets (Viola) are a genus of Spring flowering plants in the family Violaceae. There are around 400-500 species of Violets in the genus. Violets are native to the temperate Northern Hemisphere and are also distributed in Hawaii, Australasia, and the Andes in South America. Violets are found in moist and slightly shaded conditions such as hedgerows.

The word ‘Violet’ comes from the Latin name ‘Viola’. Ordinary Violets, Common Blue Violets, Sweet violets and Garden violets are some of the popular varieties of violets. Most Violets are small perennial plants, but a few are annual plants and some are small shrubs.

Kingdom Plantae Division Magnoliophyta Class Magnoliopsida Order Malpighiales Family Violaceae Genus Viola

Violets typically have heart-shaped leaves, and asymmetrical flowers. The shape of the petals defines many species, for example, some Violets have a spur at the end of each petal. Flower colors vary among the Violets, many of which are violet as their name suggests, and some are blue, yellow, white and cream. Some are bicolored, often blue and yellow.

Facts about Violets

  • True Violets have been known for centuries with the ancient Greeks cultivating them about 500 BC or earlier. Both the Greeks and the Romans used Violets for all sorts of things such as herbal remedies, wine (‘Vinum Violatum’), to sweeten food and for festivals.
  • Strictly, Sweet violets, Bedding Violas and Pansies are all classified as “violas”. Sweet Violets descended from the European wild sweet violet, Viola odorata. Bedding Violas (the flower that we usually call “violas”) were hybridized from pansies and Viola cornuta. Pansies developed from the wild violas, Viola lutea and Viola tricolor (“johnny-jump-up”).
  • Violets are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species.
  • Crossings of a number of plants were developed and these were known as the ‘Quatre saisons’ violets. Along with the so-called ‘Russian Violet’ introduced in the latter part of the 19th century, these horticultural efforts gave us the Violets we grow today.
  • The Blue violet is common to the United States, growing from Maine to Florida.
  • The Ancient Greeks considered the Violet a symbol of fertility and love; they used it in love potions. Pliny recommended that a garland of violets be worn above the head to ward off headaches and dizzy spells.
  • The genus includes the Dog Violets, a group of scentless species which are the commonest violets in many areas; the Sweet Violet, Viola odorata (named from its sweet scent) and many other species whose common name includes the word “Violet”. Several species are known as Pansies.
  • The purple violet/Wood Violet/ blue prairie Violet/Prairie blue Violet/hooded blue Violet/meadow blue Violet/and butterfly Violet, is very popular in the eastern United States and is Wisconsin’s State Flower.
  • Violets should not be taken internally in large doses. Violet flowers are edible, used in medicines, as a laxative, and the flowers are candied for decoration in jellies, etc.

True Violets

Saintpaulia is a genus comprising African violets, which are not true Violets. The main differences between African Violets and True violets are:

  • African violets are mainly grown as houseplants. They are shallow rooting plants that enjoy a good amount of light as long as it is in the shade. True violets are deep-rooting outdoor plants that thrive in partial shade to full sun.
  • African violets have fleshy downy leaves and produce throughout the summer, five-petalled flowers, usually with a distinct eye while true violets have large to small heart shaped leaves, sometimes smooth, sometimes with varying degrees of hairiness. The flowers are produced from September through to March and most, apart from the Parma Violets, which are frost tolerant.

Varieties of Violets

  • Viola arvensis – Field Pansy
  • Viola biflora – Yellow Wood Violet or Twoflower Violet
  • Viola canina – Heath Dog Violet
  • Viola hirta – Hairy Violet
  • Viola odorata – Sweet Violet
  • Viola pedunculata – Yellow Pansy
  • Viola riviniana – Common Dog Violet
  • Viola tricolor – Wild Pansy or Heart’s-ease
  • Viola adunca – Early Blue Violet
  • Viola nephrophylla – Northern Bog Violet
  • Viola pedatifida – Crowfoot Violet
  • Viola pubescens – Downy Yellow Violet
  • Viola rugulosa – Western Canada Violet

Growing Violets

Violets are easily cultivated through root cuttings or seeds.

  • Violets are best grown in the dappled shade of deciduous trees thus allowing full winter and spring sunshine.
  • Choose a site with full sun to light shade. Violets also like well-drained, fairly rich soil, so work in a spadeful or two of compost at planting time for best results.
  • Plant Violets in early spring, four to six weeks before your region’s last frost date.
  • Plant 4 to 8 inches apart, depending on the variety.
  • Mulch to keep roots cooler longer.
  • Water only moderately. Although they love cool conditions, Violets don’t need huge amounts of water.
  • Pinch off spent blooms to promote longer flowering.
  • Fertilize once after blooming starts.

Violet Plant Care

Prick out the seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle and plant them out in summer. Violets should receive extra moisture in dry weather, as Red Spider Mite is liable to attack if they are allowed to get parched. Spraying with a hose is helpful. Occasional feeding with soot water or liquid manure and even a top dressing of blood or bone is helpful for good blooms.

Division during the autumn or just after flowering. Larger divisions can be planted out direct into their permanent positions, though it is best to pot up smaller divisions and grow them in light shade in a greenhouse or cold frame until they are growing away well. Keep runners picked off during the growing season. This will encourage good sized flowers.

Violet

Violet

With their cheerful, whiskered faces and wide variety of colors, violets are some of the prettiest and earliest blooming plants in the garden. While many of the 500+ species are perennial, these rugged plants can also be treated as annual plants for early spring color. Because violets tolerate cold temperatures, theycan be the first flowering plants placed outdoors in the garden or containers (good news for gardeners with spring fever). Violets are extremely easy to start from seed, too. Once violets are in the ground, they will be happy to reseed for years to come.

genus name
  • Viola
light
  • Part Sun,
  • Shade,
  • Sun
plant type
  • Annual,
  • Perennial
height
  • Under 6 inches,
  • 6 to 12 inches
width
  • 6 inches to indefinitely wide, depending on variety
flower color
  • Blue,
  • Purple,
  • Red,
  • Orange,
  • White,
  • Pink,
  • Yellow
foliage color
  • Blue/Green
season features
  • Spring Bloom,
  • Fall Bloom,
  • Winter Bloom
problem solvers
  • Groundcover
special features
  • Low Maintenance,
  • Fragrance,
  • Good for Containers,
  • Cut Flowers
zones
  • 2,
  • 3,
  • 4,
  • 5,
  • 6,
  • 7,
  • 8,
  • 9,
  • 10,
  • 11
propagation
  • Division,
  • Seed,
  • Stem Cuttings

Colors of Violets

Violets come in a whole rainbow of colors. They are most often found in bright jewel tones, but there are softer pastel varieties that make a perfect accent to spring decor. Many varieties also feature multicolor blooms with intricate patterns on their faces that seem to have been hand-painted. As an added bonus, violets are a fragrant annual on top of their charming appearance. This diminutive plant can even stand up well as a cut flower in a small bud vase. Plus, edible violet petals can be used to garnish cakes and pastries, or tossed in a salad for a bright pop of color. A caution: Only eat flowers known to come from a chemical-free source.

How to Grow Violets

Many forms of violets are best grown in a woodland-type setting using rich, organic soils. While violets are tough in terms of their cold tolerance, they are neither drought-tolerant nor heat-tolerant. Make sure violets have consistent moisture, especially in warmer months. When growing annual-type violets in containers, be sure to choose a well-drained potting mix. Using a slow-release fertilizer will help encourage continuous blooms.

Although violets tolerate of a variety of sun conditions, most will grow best in full sun to partial shade. Some woodland species tolerate more shade; in fact they can be planted in areas considered to be full shade. In warmer climates plant violets in areas that receive afternoon shade to help keep plants cool in hot summer months. Even this approach may not be enough to pull violets—traditionally a cool season plant—through. For this reason, violets often are treated as cool-season annuals and torn out once summer begins.

More top annuals for shady areas.

New Types of Violets

With hundreds of species available to experiment with, there are constantly new innovations in the world of violets. Much of the work in breeding moves toward creating more heat-tolerant plants, better perennials, and plants with larger blooms. Some new novelty varieties trail, making them excellent choices for containers and hanging baskets.

More Varieties of Violet

Common blue violet

Viola sororia, also known as the common blue violet, is native to the U.S. It blooms most heavily in spring, and occasionally throughout the summer. Zones 3-7

Johnny-jump-up

Viola tricolor has tufts of heart-shaped leaves and plenty of 1-inch yellow and purple flowers with brown “whiskers” and purple “chin” over a long period. It self-seeds freely. It grows to 5 inches tall and is hardy in Zones 3-9, but is often treated as an annual.

‘Molly Sanderson’ Johnny-jump-up

This selection of Viola tricolor has almost-black flowers that are yellow at the throat. It grows 8 inches tall and is hardy in Zones 3-9.

‘Sorbet Coconut Swirl’ Viola

Viola cornuta ‘Sorbet Coconut Swirl’ is a delight with creamy-white flowers edged in rich lavender. It’s a heat-resistant variety that grows 1 foot tall. Zones 4-9.

‘Sorbet Coconut Duet’ Viola

This variety of Viola cornuta shows off purple and white flowers on a compact, 12-inch-tall, heat-resistant plant. Zones 4-9

Sweet violet

The sweet violet has one of the loveliest scents of all of the violets, along with the classic purple blooms. Zones 4-8

Plant Violet With:

It’s easy to see the origin of bleeding heart’s common name when you get a look at its heart-shape pink or white blooms with a protruding tip at the base of the heart. They grow best in partial to full shade in moist, well-drained soil. Some types bloom only in spring and others bloom spring, summer, and fall, provided temperatures aren’t too high.

Looking like a tiny daisy, in England this plant is known as lawn daisy because it grows so short and so dense that it’s a weed in lawns, albeit a beautiful weed.Technically a perennial, English daisy is usually best treated as a biennial (it takes two years to bloom and then dies in the fall) in the South and an annual in the North. Plants survive down to about 10 degrees F so they can be planted in the fall in the South for early-spring bloom. In cool climates, such as England and the Pacific Northwest, they’ll bloom from spring planting until summer heat arrives.

Charming, diminutive forget-me-nots are delicate plants with beautiful little blue flowers. While they do come in pinks and whites, it’s the blues that people find most delightful.Forget-me-nots are excellent in pots, as edgings, and planted close as a groundcover. These short-lived plants, mostly treated as biennials, reseed generously. The flowers have colorful, tiny yellow eyes and bloom in spring and into early summer. They are prone to damage by slugs.

Violet’s Edible and Medicinal Uses

Violets are welcome “weeds” in my garden. In fact, the common blue violet—my particular brand of violet garden guest—is native to these parts, which is more than I can say for myself.

The common blue violet (Viola sororia, Violaceae) is native to most of central and eastern North America. It is a common sight in lawns, gardens, sidewalk cracks and along trailsides. The common blue violet is typically considered a “weed” because of its relative ease in adapting to human disturbance, but it pushes the definition of weed because it has been on this continent for a very long time. The leaves and flowers of the common blue violet, along with many other species, are edible and medicinal. The “confederate violet” is an escaped cultivar (cultivated variety) of Viola sororia—it has white flowers with blue streaks and is a common inhabitant of lawns in the southeastern United States.

Common blue violet (Viola sororia)

Confederate violet (Viola sororia)

The sweet violet (Viola odorata, Violaceae) is the principal medicinal and culinary species used in Europe. It has escaped cultivation in many locales, because it is popularly planted for its fragrance. Much of the American use of violets stems from the European herbal tradition. Interestingly, most violet species in North America lack the signature aroma of sweet violet.

The Viola genus contains around 550 species, mostly found in the temperate climates of the world. Many species of violet are used similarly to the common blue violet. Most wild foods authors report that the blue and white flowered species of violet are all edible, but not the yellow flowered species. Other authors write that all species are serviceable. I notice that the leaves of some of the wild violets have an unpleasant soapy flavor, which leaves a funny feeling at the back of my throat; this is most likely from high levels of saponins. I avoid these plants, and instead go for the milder tasting species. Some woodland species of violet are rare and should not be disturbed. A good course of action is to identify the common species of violet in your area and then research their edibility and/or traditional uses for medicine. But there’s a good chance that you have common blue violets or the sweet violet growing in your area—both of which are good wild edibles and choice medicinals.

Violet’s heart-shaped leaves and characteristic irregular flowers are a familiar sight for most of us. The leaves typically bear rounded teeth and are smooth. The flowers have a little rounded tail if you turn them over. Children seem to have a special affinity for this charismatic group of plants; perhaps because its bright flowers are well within their reach. Violets actually have many look-alikes, many of which are inedible or poisonous, so only harvest them when the flowers are present and you are 100% sure that you have a violet.

I enjoy violet leaves and flowers in salad, pesto and in sandwiches and wraps. The roots of most violet species can cause nausea and vomiting, and should not be eaten. The leaves and flowers can be harvested with scissors in a “haircut” style. Violet can be harvested multiple times throughout the spring until the leaves become too fibrous. It will often make a comeback in the fall, with a flush of tender new growth. Violet leaves can be sautéed or steamed. I also like to stir them into soups as a nutrient-dense thickener. The flowers make a lovely garnish—we sprinkle them on salads and add them to cakes and pancakes. Violet flowers are also beautiful when candied or frozen into ice cubes.

Violet and chickweed salad, garnished with dandelion flowers

Violet leaves contain a good bit of mucilage, or soluble fiber, and thus are helpful in lowering cholesterol levels (similar to oatmeal). Soluble fiber is also helpful in restoring healthy populations of intestinal flora, as beneficial bacteria feed off of this type of fiber. The leaves are high in Vitamins A and C, and rutin, which is a glycoside of the flavonoid quercetin. Rutin has been shown in animal and in vitro studies to be anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and blood thinning. Many foods that are high in rutin, such as buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), are eaten traditionally as a remedy for hemorrhoids and varicose veins.

Chickweed and violet hummus

Violet is cooling and moistening and is used internally as a blood cleanser and lymphatic stimulant. It is taken as a tea or syrup, and can also be eaten for its medicine. The exact dosage is not especially important since it can safely be consumed in large quantities. As a gentle food herb, violet is generally safe for elders, youngsters, and people who are taking pharmaceuticals.

Violet has a rich tradition in Europe, where it has been used for centuries as a pulmonary remedy for dry hacking cough. It is often recommended for bronchitis and whooping cough, along with the roots of marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) and licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra). Violet can also be used as a tonic for chronically swollen lymph nodes. As with many other herbs with an action on the lymphatic system, it has a long tradition of use in the treatment of cancer.

Topically, violet is used as a poultice, compress, infused oil and salve in the treatment of dry or chafed skin, abrasions, insect bites, eczema, varicose veins and hemorrhoids. It is cooling, soothing and anti-inflammatory.

Fresh violet and chickweed greens on a bagel with garlic sauce

If that isn’t enough to enamor you of their presence, violets have secret underground flowers, which never open to the light of day, yet still set seed. Read about these subterranean “Plan B” flowers here.

Violet’s secret subterranean flowers

Think twice before weeding out this medicinal and edible wildflower; it may be one of the most valuable plants in your garden, even if you didn’t put it there!

If you’re interested in learning more about foraging, wild edibles, and medicinals, please check out our Online Foraging Course and Herbal Immersion Program.

Wild Violets Care – How To Grow Wild Violet Plants

Learning to grow violet flowers is easy. In fact, they pretty much take care of themselves in the garden. Keep reading to learn more about wild violets care.

Wild Violet Flowers

Wild violets (Viola odorata) have heart-shaped leaves with purple-blue flowers. Some varieties also have white or yellow blooms. Although in some areas they are considered annuals or biennials, wild violets often self-seed, coming back each year in unexpected locations.

The flowers that are low on the plant, referred to as cleistogamous flowers, do not open but instead produce and house seeds, allowing the plant to readily reproduce. The only downside to this attribute is the fact that wild violets have a tendency to become invasive, popping up nearly everywhere, if not controlled with some type of barrier.

Wild violet plants

also spread through underground rhizomes.

Growing Wild Violet Plants in the Garden

Growing violets is easy and with care they have many uses in the garden. Wild violets make great accents around trees, near water sources, and beds. They also make excellent choices for instant ground cover in a woodland garden. They can even be grown in containers.

Both the leaves and flowers (which bloom in late winter and early spring) are also edible and rich in vitamins.

Violets can be planted nearly anytime throughout spring and fall, though early spring is preferable. These plants enjoy light shade but will also thrive in sunny locations. While they tolerate many soil types, wild violets prefer soil that is moist, yet well-draining, and rich in organic matter.

Wild Violets Care

When growing violets, other than watering following planting and occasional watering throughout the growing season, wild violet flowers require very little care. These resilient little plants tend to take care of themselves.

If desired, cutting the flower stalks back can help alleviate problems with spurting seeds. Those choosing to propagate wild violets can divide established plants in spring or fall, though their self-seeding capabilities make this unnecessary. Seeds can also be collected and then sown in fall either indoors or in a cold frame.

Wild violet plants are not usually affected by many problems; however, their foliage is occasionally affected by spider mites in dry weather.

‘Wild’ yards are things of beauty in the spring time! Weeds to one, are salad greens, seasonings, or medicine to another. From the tiny white flowers adorning chickweed to the deep purple and green blossoms of henbit, unkempt, springtime yards are happy rainbows of color.

It is impossible to pick a favorite yard herb or spring flower, but, if forced to choose, the wild violet would rank in my top five. White, cream, lavender, violet (!), plum, yellow – there is such variety. Low growing, with dark green, heart-shaped leaves, you will also hear them called Johnny-jump-ups, heart’s-ease, violas, or pansies (nurseries supply bedding plants of the same name). With hundreds of species growing throughout most of the northern hemisphere, common violets are not hard to find.

This year, instead of considering them “noxious weeds”, try to see violets in a new light. A feast for the eyes they may be; but did you know that most species of the genus Viola are edible and medicinal? If you have these delicate beauties in your area, you have found true herbal treasure. Here are a few ways to enjoy them:

As border plants – wild violets transplant easily and love shady to semi-shady areas. Find the low leaf rosettes in late winter or very early spring and move them before the flower stems appear. Early garden color is your reward and honeybees love them. The plants may die back with the strong heat of summer but will return in force each year. Leave plenty of room for them to fill vacant areas of your bed and share freely if invasive or thin the crowd to the compost bin.

To brighten a spring meal – violet blossoms are beautiful and tasty additions to many dishes. Clip the blossoms fresh from the plant, give them a rinse, and sprinkle them over fresh vegetable salads, sandwich fillings, or a favorite, cold beverage. If harvested early, float the flowers in a bowl of water and refrigerate until needed (pretty containers, filled with floating violets, are delightful placed throughout the house or as a springtime centerpiece). The leaves, very high in vitamin C, also make an interesting addition to the salad bowl.

Fresh spinach salad topped with violets, walnuts, and feta cheese.

Centered on cakes and pastries – rinsed, dried, and sugared they become cheery confections. You will need one egg white (preferably organic), whisked thoroughly; a small, new paintbrush (which will only and forever be used in food preparation); and superfine sugar. Instead of clipping the blooms from the stem, leave most of it to use as a handle. Best known as candied violets, these treats could take a few hours to dry, so give yourself plenty of time to create.

Whisk the egg in a small bowl and pour some of the sugar into another. Lay out a cooling rack or two; have the paintbrush at hand; and prepare a moist towel to keep your fingers sugar-free. Holding each flower by the stem and working with them one at a time, lightly brush a thin coat of egg white on both sides of the blossom. Immediately sprinkle sugar on both sides and shake to remove the excess. Lay them gently on the rack to dry. Once dried, you may need to do a little touch up to any uncoated spots. Let them dry completely before use or storage and be sure to remove the stems. Enjoy these delicacies immediately or layer them between parchment or waxed paper, in a sturdy container, and freeze for use throughout the year. Take them out as desired to decorate any of your favorite sweet treats!

Steeped for a delicious, healthful tea – the leaves and blossoms have been used for centuries to treat or calm many inflammatory complaints. Full of vitamins, minerals, salicylic acid, and anti-inflammatory properties, steeping a cup of violet tea is good for what ails you. Use one to two teaspoons fresh leaves or flowers, or one tablespoon dried, to one cup of boiling water, cover, and leave for three to four minutes. Sweeten with honey, if desired. (Always research herbal medicines before administering them. The information in this article is not intended as advice to diagnose or treat any disease or sickness.)

Used as outdoor first aid – when wounds, stings, or abrasions happen, grab a handful of sweet violets. Macerated leaves or flowers, placed on any skin ailment, brings relief and begins healing. The plant can also be made into a poultice, an herbal first aid rinse, or a salve.

Cooked into a simple syrup, infused in oil or honey, eaten raw or sauteed – dried, sipped, or sugared – jellied and poulticed and steeped, wild violets are a mainstay of herbalists across the country. Let this be the season to try something new. Take a look around and find those plants of the family Violaceae – they are a great introduction to wild herbs for happiness and health!

Late winter’s variegated violets.

Note – Never harvest wild foods or herbs from places sprayed with chemicals of any kind. If you are uncomfortable harvesting wild foods, take along an experienced forager or consult a field guide or online resource.

Can you Grow Violets Indoors

Can you Grow Violets Indoors?!
Q. Every spring a portion of our lawn is a carpet of wild violets. I love it, but our landlord doesn’t. He hates all flowers and wants a sterile lawn. (A neighbor planted flowers that climbed up her trellis—a feat she accomplished despite having only one hand—and one day she came home to discover that he’d ripped out the flowers and trashed the trellis!)
To the point: I love plants, especially violets. Is there a way to grow them indoors? Once the lawn is mowed, they’ll be gone until next year. I see questions in your archives from people who want to get rid of them – why? They’re so very beautiful!
—- Cynthia in Nashville
A. I had just come in from picking a pint of wild violet flowers for my wife when Cynthia’s plea arrived, so I had to ‘pick’ it for this week’s question.
Why was I picking the pretty little flowers? For my wife to eat, just like pansies! All members of the Viola family—wild violets, Johnny jump-ups, violas and pansies—are edible; and the best food source of rutin, a hard-to-find nutrient that strengthens capillary walls and thus reduces or prevents the disfiguring look of varicose or ‘spider’ veins. I’ve been growing pansies for my wife ever since I learned that fact as a medical reporter back in the 1980s—when live pansies were only available in the Spring. But after a few years, special ‘winter pansies’; ‘icicle pansies’ started showing up in garden centers in the early fall as well.
‘Special’ my Sainted Aunt Eleanor—they’re the exact same plants you’d buy in the Spring! The fall plants were just started by growers in the summer as opposed to the winter. But it’s a great deal to be able to buy them in the Fall. In many climates, those plants are going to flower all fall, survive the winter and then bloom again the following spring, “until”, as the classic line goes, “summer heat does them in.” Pansies are super cold-hardy, but like peas, lettuce and spinach, they are cool weather plants that burn up (or in the case of greens, bolt) in the summer heat.
Now, do the wild violets currently adorning our landscapes have a different life cycle than cultivated pansies? Yes and no.
Wild violets appear in the Spring and last a month or two depending on the weather. Like Spring bulbs, the cooler the air, the longer the flowers will last. Then, just like cultivated pansies, they vanish when the weather gets too warm. But unlike pansies, which are true annuals, wild violets are herbaceous perennials that retreat to their safety of their root systems in the off-season—sometimes reappearing for a little show in the Fall. (Not every Fall and never as big a show as in the Spring, but generally enough to decorate a few salads.)
Now, it sounds like our listener in Nashville only wants her violets for their looks, which is good. Because in her situation, I would not advise any eating. If her landlord is a real weed fighting fiend, he’s likely to be dousing the turf with massive amounts of herbicides…
…to which wild violets are essentially immune. The fragile-looking flowers are unaffected by any chemical herbicide a homeowner can legally buy. And there’s no need to attack them. They’re ephemeral! They provide beautiful color in the Spring, food for humans—and caterpillars that will become beautiful butterflies—and then disappear after a month or two.
Now, am I going to attempt to answer her actual question? Or just keep dancing?
I do know all the moves to “Ain’t too Proud to Beg”, but will attempt to answer this tough question anyway—after yet another digression: The best answer is to buy pansies and grow them in a window box or some other kind of container. Pansies come in all different shapes and sizes, and the small-flowered ones look a lot like violets.
If she has no space outdoors? (Or the fear that a container will be attacked), she could grow a flat of small flowered pansies under a four-foot-long shoplight—or one of the new LED plant lights–inside. (Look for lights that produce the most lumens.) Pansies, for instance, might actually live longer indoors if they’re protected from summer heat and their flowers picked promptly. (A plant whose flowers ARE faithfully picked will keep pumping new ones out.)
But what about wild violets; CAN she grow those indoors?
We know from our friends at the Philadelphia Flower Show that you can grow pretty much any plant at any time of year if you have the resources. And what’s to lose? Wild violets have large underground root systems. If she digs up a big clump and pots it before Vlad the Impaler gets to the lawn, it might well bloom inside if given the right conditions.
It’s hard to say what the flowers will do in summer and winter if they’re indoors under bright light and in cool air, but it sounds like a fun project. And if they go seasonally dormant and you keep the greenery alive, they should rebloom at some point. Just don’t let that landlord see you digging them up and leaving craters in his precious lawn!

Violet species (Violaceae)

March 2016

Small herbaceous plants of woods and fields; flowers are blue, purple, white, or yellow, according to species; deep green, heart-shaped leaves in basal rosettes or on ascending stems; a good groundcover and a vigorous self-seeder.

By Pamela Johnson

There is a charming tale told in Jack Sanders’ Hedgemaids and Fairy Candles about John Bartram’s transformation from colonial farmer to America’s first botanist. Bartram (1699-1777), “weary” from ploughing his fields along the Schuylkill River, outside Philadelphia, took “repose” in an uncultivated spot nearby. According to Sanders and others, Bartram picked a violet and suddenly thought he would prefer to study flowers rather than till them under his plough. Bartram soon hired someone else to work his farm, and embarked upon the first of many botanical expeditions, first in borrowed books, then on horseback throughout the wildernesses of the Eastern seaboard.

That a native violet inspired Bartram’s singular career, in which he eventually introduced many New World plants to the gardeners and gardens of Britain, seems fitting. Except that it was a common field daisy, not a violet, that re-directed Bartram’s life. J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur (1735-1813) records Bartram’s own words in de Crèvecœur’s Letters From An American Farmer:

. . . one day I was very busy in holding my plough (for thee see’st that I am but a ploughman), and being wary I ran under the shade of a tree to repose myself. I cast my eyes on a daisy; I plucked it mechanically and viewed it with more curiosity than common country farmers are wont to do, and observed therein very many distinct parts…’what a shame,’ said my mind…that thee shouldest have employed so many years in tilling the earth and destroying so many flowers and plants without being acquainted with their structures and their uses! This seeming inspiration suddenly awakened my curiosity, for these were not thoughts to which I had been accustomed.

How did a white daisy become a blue violet in the retelling of Bartram’s epiphany? It could have been a bit of patriotic burnishment: better a native violet to inspire, rather than a mundane plant that probably emigrated to the New World in the matted fur, fleece, or hide of some imported seventeenth-century livestock. Or it could have been the ubiquity, and ease of recognition of violets – simple enough to locate in a meadow or hedgerow, but still possessed with some charm and romance.

Violets are found in temperate regions worldwide; there are perhaps five hundred species, though numbers are approximated because violets hybridize easily, no matter where they grow. Along the wilder edges of Bartram’s field there would certainly have been a smattering of native violets. And his plough would probably have turned under an Old World hitchhiker the Johnny-Jump-Up, or heartease, Viola tricolor.

Early settlers were prepared to identify native violets from the familiarity and similarity of species included in English and European herb gardens. Centuries before, violets were mythologized in resurrection tales. Aristophanes (448?-385? B.C.), the Greek poet, called Athens “the violet-crowned city” whose King Ion may have given the violet its name. The seventh-century Arab prophet Muhammed favored violets above all other flowers. In the thirteenth century, Genghis Khan was said to have moved westward with his army of Tartars subsisting on violet roots. Shakespeare garlanded Ophelia with violets, in life and death, and called the violet’s complexion “purple pride”, in Sonnet 99.

But it was the nineteenth century Romantics, on both sides of the Atlantic, who made the most of violets, in floriographies, indices of floral language and meaning. Flower bouquets were cryptic offerings to be decoded by floral dictionaries. Violets, silently and with faint sweetness, communicated “love”, “truth”, and “loyalty”.

There are eighteen viola species in Maine, including the rare New England Violet (Viola novae-angliae), and almost as many subspecies or hybrids. Some violets occupy specialized habitats, and, of course, not all violets are violet-colored: some are white, a few are yellow, the remainder are shades of blue and purple. What all native violets share is the tendency to flower early and an unusual strategy that insures seed production if blossoms and pollinators fail to connect when spring begins.

Violet flowers are perfectly designed for precocious pollinators, the early small bees and flies who emerge when ground temperatures first warm. Regardless of the species’s general flower color, violet petals have striations that lure and guide pollinators to the flower’s nectary. The coloration can be flagrant: deep purple veins augmented with “beards”, raised hairs that bees have to wiggle through to penetrate the nourishing delights within the flower’s interior. Or the markings may be more subtle: paler nettings of purple which still provide signposts for pollinators (bees are preternaturally attracted to the cyanic spectrum – shades of blue and purple).

Violet flowers are evanescent, however: they open, and fade quickly in Spring’s faithless weather. It may be that temperatures are too cold, or winds too fierce, for pollinators to appear, though day length has prompted flowering. So violets produce alternate flowers, usually beneath the plants’ lowest leaves. They are petal-less cleistogamous flowers that look like capsules, and are self-pollinated. “Cleisto-”comes from the Greek word for “closed”. The fully developed aerial violet flowers that require pollination are called chasmogamous flowers. Chasmogamy’s Greek root is the word for “wide opening”, chásm(a).

The disadvantage of cleistogamy is the absence of genetic refreshment. Seeds produced will only have the parent plant’s traits; perpetuation is guaranteed, but at the cost of diversity. Also, since cleistogamous capsules are so close to the ground, ripened seed may not travel far from home. Violet seeds can be ejected with some velocity as the membranes holding seeds in place shrink and expel their contents, sometimes 3 to 4 feet distant; but this seed-shattering/seed-scattering is more effective above the foliage and stems.

Seed dispersal is also abetted by ants. Violet seeds have an appendage that looks like a glistening cuticle, or perhaps, to an ant, like a larval morsel. The protuberance, called an elaiosome, is found on the seeds of many native woodland species, as well as viola species. Elaiosomes mimic animal proteins; their chemistry is a magnet to ants who carry off the seeds and feed their broods with these fatty, protein-rich bonanzas. The hard-coated seeds themselves are of little interest to the ants, and are discarded into ant-created waste heaps (middens) that are a good, nutritive, growing medium for seeds. Myrmecochory is the name for seed dispersal by ants, and three ant species do much of the work: Myrmica punctiventris, the punctured ant; Aphaenogaster picea, the pitch-black Aphaenogaster; and A. rudis, the rough Aphaenogaster. As many as thirty percent of spring-flowering herbaceous plant species in the forests of North American benefit from myrmecochory. Some studies have indicated that ant dispersal engenders more vigorous plants.

The violet’s insect retinue is large, and includes other numbers of the Hymenoptera family (bees and wasps) along with the seed-dispersing ant species. Violets are pollinated primarily by sweat bees (Halictidae) and mason bees (the genus Osmia). Occasionally bumblebees (Bombycidae), too burly for the violet’s petalled access, will nip off a violet’s spur to steal nectar without providing pollination services. Syrphid flies (Syrphidae) visit violets for stray pollen, but they are not reliable pollinators like the small bees.

The caterpillars of many fritillary butterflies feed on violet leaves. The meadow fritillary (Boloria bellona), the great-spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) whose wingspan would cover the width of a single small violet plant, the Aphrodite (Speyeria aphrodite), and the variegated fritillary (Euptoieta claudia), all avail themselves of violets. As do gall midges (Phytophaga viotidae), violet sawflies (Amastasteiga pallipes), and the elegant crane flies (Tipulidae), sometimes the seasonally earliest and latest flying insects.

Grouse, juncos, mourning doves, and small mammals eat violet seeds and wild turkeys eat their roots; deer and cottontail rabbits eat the foliage of violets. While violets played a role in the materia medica of the Old World, their deployment among Native Americans was less substantial. The mucilaginous leaves were used to thicken stews, and decoctions were made for pain relief and treatments for inflammation. The leaves were “salett” herbs (and potherbs), beneficial for their strong concentrations of Vitamins C and A.

A discussion about individual violet species would consume a lot of space; field guides are necessary for distinguishing many species and their hybrids. even botanists sometimes resort to the initials “l.b.v.” when asked to identify a tricky species: little blue violet is the expedient without a great deal of scrutiny. The challenge is out there for those willing to tackle clavate hairs, spur lengths, leaf lobes, and sepal cilia.

The season of violets will soon arrive, sweet heralds of the wild flower parade. In Forest and Thicket, John Eastman writes:

It’s the most visible beginning, this low blue flame in the woods. I think of it as a pilot light that ignites the entire burst of resurrection we call spring.

Collecting seeds from violets takes a little observation. Within a week or two of the last flowers appearances, check the plants regularly for the ½″ pale green seedpods. The pods point downward until the seeds begin to ripen, when they turn tan and papery, and reorient, pointing upwards. If the seeds have begun to turn brown they are ripe and ready to collect. (Seeds explode outward when the pods split.) Seeds can be sown immediately in pots outdoors, left to dry for a few weeks in a paper bag, then put in the refrigerator in a sealed jar or bag for fall sowing. Germination will occur the following spring.

Varieties Of Violets: Different Types Of Violets

Violets are one of the cheeriest little flowers to grace the landscape. True violets are different from African violets, which are natives of east Africa. Our native violets are indigenous to the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere and may bloom from spring well into summer, depending upon the species. There are around 400 types of violet plants in the genus Viola. The many violet plant varieties guarantee there is a sweet little Viola perfect for almost any gardening need.

Violet Plant Varieties

True violets have been cultivated since at least 500 B.C. Their uses were more than ornamental, with flavoring and medicinal applications high on the list. Today, we are fortunate to have a plethora of different types of violets readily available at most nurseries and garden centers.

Violas encompass the dog violets (scentless blooms), wild pansies and sweet violets, which are descended from wild sweet violets from Europe. With so many choices, it can be hard to decide which of these endlessly charming flowers to choose for your landscape. We’ll break down the basic different types of violets so you can pick the best fit for your garden.

Both pansies and violets are in the genus Viola. Some are perennials and some are annuals but all sport the sunny, uplifted face-like flowers characteristic of the family Violaceae. While both are technically violets, each has a slightly different characteristic and genesis.

Pansies are a cross between the wild violets, Viola lutea and Viola tricolor, and are often called Johnny-jump-ups for their ability to crop up readily anywhere. Sweet violets are descended from Viola odorata, while bedding violets are deliberate hybrids of Viola cornuta and pansies.

The mounding form and leaves are the same, but pansies have more distinctive “faces” then bedding violets, which feature more streaking. Any of the types of violet flowers are equally as appealing and easy to grow.

Typical Varieties of Violets

There are over 100 types of violet plants available for sale. The two main types of violet flowers in nurseries are bedding violets and sweet violets. These and pansies are classed into 5 categories:

  • Heirloom
  • Double
  • Parmas (which prefer warmer seasons)
  • New violet
  • Viola

Pansies are distinguished by their four petals pointing upwards and one pointing down. The violas have two petals pointing up and three pointing down. The categories have further been divided into subgroups:

  • Pansy
  • Viola
  • Violettas
  • Cornuta hybrids

None of this is very important unless you are a breeder or botanist, but it serves to indicate the huge array of varieties of violets and the need for a larger classing system to indicate species variation among the family members.

Bedding varieties are your hybridized violets and pansies. In late winter, they are the most commonly found in nurseries and thrive in the cool of early spring and even late winter in temperate and warm regions. Wild violets are less common but may be found at native nurseries since 60 species are native to North America.

Every region will have slightly different offerings but there are some mainstays in the Viola community. The garden or bedding pansies, which are a hybrid, come in numerous colors, from blue to russet and anything in between. Blue violets are the most common and will readily seed themselves in your garden.

Perennial violas that will perform well in most zones include:

  • Nellie Britton
  • Moonlight
  • Aspasia
  • Buttercup
  • Blackjack
  • Vita
  • Zoe
  • Huntercombe Purple
  • Clementina

Wild Violas for sale may be field pansies, yellow wood violet, hairy violet, dog violet, downy yellow or early blue violet. All these types of violet plants should thrive in dappled light, well-draining soil and average moisture. Most will self-seed and double the dainty flower display the next year.

Violets of any name are one of nature’s sweet treats that shouldn’t be missed in the landscape.

Knowing Your Violets: Basic Flower Types

“Knowing Your Violets: Basic Flower Types”

Originally appeared in VioletsFun Photo Journal, issue no. 2.

When African violets were first discovered in East Africa, there existed only one flower type and color–a single blue pansy blossom with five petals. Now, after years of hybridizing, violet blossoms appear in many different types. Knowing the terms that violet hybridizers and growers use, and learning the characteristics of different flower types can help us in selecting violets. We’ll look at each of these characteristics.

By number of flower petals. Flowers having only 5 petals are called “single”. “Double” refers to flowers with 10 or more petals (i.e. two or more full sets of five). We call a flower “semidouble” when there are from 6 to 9 petals. Often the number of petals will change because of many different reasons, either genetic or cultural. For example, blossoms will often have more petals in cooler weather, less in warmer weather. That is why we can find descriptions like “single to semidouble” or “semidouble to double”

By the shape of the flowers. The most common flower shape is the species-type or “pansy” type. These flowers are shaped like tiny pansy flowers, with two groups of petals–two smaller upper petals and three larger lower ones. It’s very easy to identify and “upside-down” photo of such a blossom, given the difference in petal sizes. “Star” type flowers have equal size petals. The number of points in the the star will depend upon whether it is single, semidouble, or double–a five or more pointed star. These blossom will look nearly identical whether seen “right-side” up or “upside” down. Other, less common, shapes are “bells” and “wasp”. “Bell” shaped flowers have petals which are fused together at their base, creating a bell-type appearance. These can be single or double, pansy or star, types. “Wasp” type flowers are rare because of the especially narrow petals, made rarer by the fact that they usually are single (and drop readily) and are small, which makes them commercially unpopular.

By the shape of petals. Species violets, and most of the very old varieties, all have smooth, flat petals. Modern varieties, besides being larger, also come in many different shapes–curly, wavy, and heavily fringed. These can give the blossoms a more feminine or exotic look.

By the color of the flowers. The most dominant color in violets, which appears in all of the species, is blue and purple. Since then, pinks and whites, reds and corals, then green and yellow, have appeared. Of course, color depends upon what the hybridizer and grower sees, when the plant is grown in their particular environment, not to mention small genetic differences from plant to plant. What is “wine” anyway? Is it more of a purple, red, or somewhere in between? Violet growers also define some colors in their own way. For example, hobbyists have accepted a somewhat purplish, fuchsia shade of red as “red”, not the “fire-engine” red that others might expect. Another example is the hobbyists’ use of the color “yellow”. “Yellow” means white or pink blossoms with yellow streaks or mottling, not “daffodil” or “canary” yellow.

By the combination of colors. Sometimes violets have more than one color or shades of a color on the petals. A “fantasy” blossom is where one predominant color is dotted or streaked with another. “Edged” blossoms are those circled with a different color or shade on the edges of the petals. “Multicolor” blossoms are those having two or more colors. a “two-toned” flower has different shades of a single color, without a distinct margin between the shades. This definition is falling out of use, since the difference in shades is often difficult to see or describe, especially when plants are grown under less than ideal conditions. “Pinwheel” blooms are perhaps the most unusual and striking color combination, where colors are shown in alternate stripes on the petals. These are commonly referred to as “chimeras”, since varieties of this type often cannot be successfully reproduced by leaf cuttings to get true-blooming plants.

Most hybridizers register their new varieties with the African Violet Society of America. The names and descriptions of these registered varieties can be found in the Master Variety List, published by AVSA and available both in print and on computer disk. Looking through the MVL, you might notice that descriptions of newer varieties tend to be more interesting and complex. Hybridizers are coming up with more colors and combinations of colors, and accurate descriptions are becoming harder to write. When grown by hobbyists, many of these varieties never precisely look as they were described. No two growers have exactly the same growing conditions, so it’s not surprising to see plants of the same variety, grown by different people, sometimes looking quite different.

Also, as flower colors and types become more complex and unusual, these varieties become more genetically unstable. Though we, as hobbyists, demand brighter and more unusual colors and combinations of colors, we also complain when our particular plant doesn’t appear as described by the seller or hybridizer. This is the price we have to pay for such beautiful new creations. Sometimes the best solution is just to keep some leaves rooting of these “unreliable” varieties, expecting the parent plant to change color due to stress, old age, or our own neglect. Even then, not all of the plantlets may bloom true to description. If we want certainty and simplicity, we can grow the species–simple flowers in one color and shape, but always very safe and predictable.

Types of Violet Flowers

pansy image by bright from Fotolia.com

Violet flowers are part of the genus Viola and consist of 500 different species including annuals, perennials, biennials and subshrubs. They have a distinct five-petaled flowerhead that grows in a wide range of colors and shapes. Violets prefer full sun to part shade and nutrient-laden soils that are fertile and moist. They also require a regular amount of deadheading or removing the spent blooms to promote a long flowering season. Tucked into containers and flower borders they create a showy garden display.

Sweet White Violet

Sweet white violet (Viola blanda) is a perennial violet variety that emerges in spring to last into early summer. Growing 6 to 12 inches tall, sweet white violets have white blooms with purple vines running on the lower petals. The upper petals bend backwards and twist. The stalk on sweet white flowers is green with a red tinge. The heart-shaped foliage grows 1 to 2 inches wide with a smattering of hairs. Sweet white violet flowers require a shaded planting site that is moist to wet. They also grow best in acidic soil. Plant sweet white violets in U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) hardiness zones 3a to 9a.

Common Blue Violet

Common blue violet (Viola sororia) is a perennial flower that grows 3 to 8 inches tall. The blue to white five-petaled flowers grow ½ to ¾ inch wide with white to purple veins. Attached to common blue violets are the smooth green stalks that hold up the blooms. Common blue violets emerge in spring to last into early summer. The foliage is heart-shaped and grows up to 5 inches wide. Common blue violets are found growing in damp woods and moist meadows. They grow best in well-drained, moist soils. Plant in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 6.

Bird’s Foot Violet

Bird’s foot violet (Viola pedata var. lineariloba), a variety of violet flower, is a perennial flower that grows 6 to 12 inches tall. Emerging in spring to last into summer, bird’s foot violets have pale lavender to deep violet blooms, with an occasional white bloom. The lower petal on bird’s foot violets is always wider than the remaining four and the center contains the orange anthers. The green foliage is made up of finger-like segments that are deeply divided in shape. Bird’s foot violets are found growing on sandy and dry roadsides, as well as along the edge of woodlands. Plant in USDA hardiness zones 2 to 9.

Wild Pansy

According to Fine Gardening magazine, “This annual, biennial or short-lived perennial is grown for its long season of pansy flowers in shades of purple, blue, yellow and white. Growing less than 6 inches tall and wide, wild pansies (Viola tricolor) have a moderate growth rate and heart-shaped leaves. They emerge in spring to last into fall, making for a long blooming season. Wild pansies grow best in full sun to part shade and nutrient-laden soil that is well drained. Plant in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 9.

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