The Gardener's Apprentice

For the Love of Violas

Many of my neighbors have pansies and violas on their porches right now.  So do I.  The only difference is that some of mine overwintered there.  Now they will go out into the garden, joining some of their newly acquired kinfolk in the job of brightening up the beds, while the parade of daffodils, hyacinths and squills march by in seasonal array.

Once in the beds, those pansies and violas will gaze thoughtfully at their much-smaller, common purple or purple and white violet cousins, currently dotting the lawn and camping out in less-tended garden areas.  Men in my neighborhood tend to curse these ordinary wood violets as lawn invaders, but I find them charming.  Of course, I don’t care if the lawn looks like a putting green, either, but that is another story.  Pansies and violets—either invited or uninvited—are signs of hope in my book and most of us need all the hope we can get.

Pansies, violas and common garden violets all belong to the large violet or Violaceae family, which includes about 22 genera and countless species, hybrids and cultivated varieties.  The name “pansy” is derived from “penser” or “pensee”, French words for “to think” and “thought’ respectively.  Modern pansies tend to look especially thoughtful because of the configuration of colored blotches and lines or whiskers on their flowery “faces”.

What is the difference between the “pansies” in your beds and containers and the “violas”?  First of all, all pansies are violas—members of the violet family—but not all violas are pansies.  For practical purposes, pansies are the large-flowered plants, available in an extremely wide range of shades, from white to near black, and an impressive array of color patterns.  Some have whiskers, some have blotches and still others have no whiskers, blotches or patterns at all, instead boasting single-colored flowers of great magnificence.

The violet story, of course, has been going on for millennia, but some of the more interesting chapters started with a wild violet, Viola tricolor, also known as the European wild violet, “Johnny Jump-Up” or, more romantically “heartsease”.  These are small perennials, somewhere between the size of a common lawn violet and a commercial viola, depending on growing conditions.  Johnny Jump-Ups are generally yellow and purple, with the yellow color on the bottom two or three petals.  I remember them from my childhood home in western New York State, where they came up unbidden every spring in the backyard, remnants, most likely, of some long-forgotten garden bed.

The little Johnny Jump-Up came to the attention of several noble English garden enthusiasts in the early nineteenth century, and they in turn, encouraged their estate gardeners to cross Viola tricolor with other violet genera, including the Russian Viola lutea and the large-flowered Eurasian violet, Viola altaica.  The end product of all this experimentation was Viola x wittrockiana, the forbear of the modern large-flowered pansy.  The pansy caught on and by 1833, an estimated 400 named pansy varieties were available to gardeners.  Shortly thereafter, hybridizers perfected the more petite plants we know now as garden violas.  We are not quite as crazy about pansies and violas as our Victorian predecessors, but we still buy millions of them every spring and, in the South, in the fall.  Mostly we treat them as annuals, but under the right circumstances—such as an open winter on my back porch—they will survive winter’s ravages and return in the spring.

Despite their beauty, neither pansies nor violas have any fragrance.  For that you have to find Viola odorata, native to parts of Europe, Africa and Asia.  These violets, which bear the common violet form, have long been used for perfumes and florists’ specimens.  Cultivated varieties became popular about the same time that the flashy wittrockianas were making their debut—the early nineteenth century.  Many varieties were available and you can still find some of them, like the dark purple ‘Queen Charlotte’.  Planted in a lightly shaded garden bed or container, they will perennialize nicely.

Sometimes confused with Viola odorata, the tender, scented Parma violet, has also been popular for centuries as a specimen plant and a source of florists’ flowers.  Modern DNA testing will eventually clarify its murky genetic origins, but it clearly came from a warm winter climate.  Parmas saw the light of day in Naples in the sixteenth century and became popular.  An Italian count, by the name of Brazza, reportedly did some breeding work with the plants in the nineteenth century, but the documentation is lost in the sands of time.  Parma violets are opulent, with double blooms, which probably endeared them to Josephine, wife of Napoleon, who reportedly grew them in her fabled garden at Malmaison.  Perhaps ironically, one of the best known Parmas, ‘Duchess de Parme’, was allegedly named for Napoleon’s widow, Marie Louise, who became Duchess of Parma.  No matter whether your affections lie with the tragic Josephine, the slightly less tragic Marie Louise, or the perpetually ambitious Napoleon, you can rest assured that they were all fond of violets.  Fortunately it is still possible to buy Parma violets from specialty retailers if you have a greenhouse in which to raise them.

So this spring, as every year, I celebrate the pansies and violas in my pots and beds and generally buy more than I should.  I watch underfoot for white and bi-colored common violets in the lawn.  One of these days, I will also revert to my childhood and plant some Johnny Jump-Ups.  Life may be uncertain from time to time, but violas remain constant.