Annuals or biennials, big or small, everyone love violas
As we move, more rapidly, towards Z, the choice of annuals is understandably small. I am sorry now for not paying more attention at the start of the month and omitting blood red adonis, fluttering agrostemma, molucella, ursinia and a host of impossibly similar umbellifers. But we have a few days to go and today it is time for violas. There are no true annual violas, those that we treat as such are probably biennials and most are perennial anyway. Viola is a huge genus and, although the flowers are easy to recognise, the plants vary enormously. While most are rather straggly and not particularly interesting plants, many South American rosulate species, from high in the Andes, are astonishing plants, more like aeoniums than violas, with small but showy flowers forming rings between the overlapping leaves.
With 600 or so species, from most continents of the world including Australia, there is a lot of scope here but the flowers are remarkably similar with their three lower petals, often whiskery markings and two upper petals. The seed pod splits into three and as it dries out the two horny sides squeeze out the seeds, distributing them.
As garden annuals or biennials the parent species is most likely V. tricolor, a common annual weed of cultivated ground along with V. arvensis the field pansy and V. lutea. Perennial violas are also derived from V. cornuta and pansies are generally assigned to V. x wittrockiana. It is thought that garden pansies and violas started with the innovative little project carried out by Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet (1785-1861) who, in her father’s Surrey garden, collected all the best violas she could find and crossed and selected them. she introduced them in 1812 and they were taken up by nurseries and developed into the garden plants we know today.
It is difficult to be precise about what makes a pansy and what is a viola (used as the common name). Pansies usually have larger flowers, ideally round, with a dark blotch while violas have whiskers and narrow flowers. In France pansies signified remembrance, hence ‘thought’ and ‘pensee’ easily imported to England and changed to pansy.
But on to practical matters. Apart from the perennial kinds which rarely set seed, they can be treated as annuals, sown in spring, or biennials, sown in late summer and planted out in autumn to bloom the next spring and summer. Because they are hardy and adaptable, some are grown as winter flowers, though winter-flowering pansies usually only have a smattering of blooms in winter. Pansies, with their large blooms, are more often damaged by winter weather than the smaller violas.
They all like cool growing conditions and can become straggly and exhausted in the heat of summer. They are best in part shade i warm climates or used for winter only. It is very important to deadhead plants and, as they age and get straggly they can be trimmed back and allowed to regrow.
Seed germinates readily and seedlings are not difficult to accommodate, and are frost hardy – though tiny seedlings should be pampered a bit!
They are frequently used in containers – for which they are ideal – but they need regular watering and feeding. If allowed to dry out they will get mildew and the leaves will become twisted as they become infested with aphids.
A really nice feature of all, but especially violas, is the pleasant fragrance, most pronounced in the yellow and orange colours. F1 hybrids are expensive but there is an almost infinite colour range now, from green to black and everything in between so it pays to splash out now and then.