What genus of flower is beloved by millions? Comes in every color of the rainbow (except green), plus black and white? Has species native to Hawaii—and the Andes? Can bloom through the snow in the dead of winter? Is tolerant of wet soil—or survives drought? Handles full sun or shade with equal enthusiasm? Includes annuals, biennials, and perennials? Always elicits a smile? Is the “birth flower” of February? The lowly Violas—which include pansies and violets—are all this and more.
There are between 525 and 600 species in the genus Viola (the number is uncertain because plant taxonomy is currently in a huge mess). Most of these are diminutive wildflowers, recognized only by naturalists and other plant aficionados. Some invade lawns, to the dismay of homeowners who want a perfect green carpet. A few have found their way into the nursery trade, where they rank third in popularity among all bedding flowers. You might even have some growing in your yard.
The common name viola refers to small bedding plants found at every nursery. Due to selective breeding, you can now buy flowers in a rainbow of colors. Some are bicolor, often a combination of purple and yellow. Others are all one hue. These plants are short-lived perennials, mostly used as cool weather annuals. In spite of their delicate appearance, violas are tough. I’ve seen them blooming in January! They grow in either full sun or light shade. They’re also surprisingly drought-tolerant and can survive here in Colorado with minimal supplemental irrigation, although regular watering results in healthier plants with more blossoms.
Johnny Jump-ups (V. tricolor or V. cornuta), are closely related to violas and have the same horticultural requirements. They earn their common name from their enthusiastic reseeding, jumping up all over the yard—but who can complain when their cheerful flowers brighten every corner? I have always weeded around them!
If you have an abundance, throw them into a salad or sugar them and use them to decorate a cake—Violas are edible.
Pansies (V. x wittrockiana) differ from violas in having “blotches” on their faces. And yes, they have faces, as anyone who has seen Disney’s Alice in Wonderland can attest.
Pansies are technically short-lived perennials but are usually grown as early- and late-season annuals, as they tend to fade and dry up in hot weather. Pansies need more pampering than their cousins, doing best with loamy soil that never quite dries out. They accept full sun to light shade. Those in the sun will produce more flowers, but will also need more water and will fade faster when summer arrives. Plants can be started from seed—allow 12 to 14 weeks for them to reach transplant size—or easily purchased from any garden center.
Then there are the less well-known perennial species. Since most of these prefer cooler weather, lots of moisture, and shade, they’re aren’t widely grown in Colorado. However, there is one Viola species that has achieved PlantSelect® status, meaning it is especially well suited for our challenging growing conditions. This standout is the Corsican Violet.
As you can tell from its name, Corsican Violets (V. corsica) comes from the Mediterranean region. That explains its heat and drought tolerance, but what amazes me is that it’s also hardy to zone 3! Thriving in full sun, Corsican Violets are covered with bright purple flowers from spring to fall. They reseed in moderation; extras are easily transplanted to a desirable spot. While not deer resistant, the plants in my yard have escaped the worst of the rabbit browsing that has decimated other plants nearby.
I’ve grouped my Corsican Violets with bright-red Pineleaf Penstemon and sunny yellow evening primroses, hoping for a showy display in the strip between the sidewalk and the street. The plants are protected from foot traffic by a couple of strategically placed boulders. More violets fill in the spaces between our still-young dwarf conifers, manzanitas, and Nearly Wild roses, extending the “mountain landscape” theme of our front yard. I may have gone a bit overboard, but who can blame me when a plant this attractive thrives here?