Violets are the traditional flower for the month of February. In the 1800’s and early 1900’s Sweet Violets (Viola odorata) were grown commercially in greenhouses as they were tolerant of cool conditions in unheated or low-heat houses. Sweethearts presented a bouquet of violets on Valentine’s Day long before Rosa took over as the prominent flower. Today, those sweet-smelling varieties of Violets are hard to find, but come spring, Pansies and Violas are still popular among gardeners.
Nurseries sell standard Viola hybrids, mostly Pansies, in late March with little variety. However, you can start your own easily from seed and open yourself up to a wide range of choices. Hybridizers continually introduce new cultivars annually that are more heat tolerant and will bloom regardless of day length. Planted in partial shade, many will bloom from frost to frost.
My favorite is Tufted or Horned Violets (Viola cornuta), they are daintier than Pansies (V. x wittrockiana), but not as small as Johnny-Jump-Ups (V. tricolor). They grow 4-6” tall in neat mounds with 1” blooms in every color, including black and white. Hybrid ‘Sorbet’ Series ‘Raspberry’, ‘Delft Blue’ and ‘Pink Halo’ are delicately colored and lovely. Then there’s ‘Black Delight’ and ‘Antique Shades’ that are richly dark. ‘Caramel’ Series ‘Angelo’ and ‘Rose Shades’ are particularly noteworthy with striking blends of yellow, pink, white and blue. ‘Penny’ Series offer a range of large, round, vigorous blooms in single and multi-colors. ‘Denim Jump Up’ is a combo of dark and lighter blue. ‘Peach Jump Up’ is blue-violet with orange.
Others that have caught my eye are Viola x williamsii ‘Velour’ Series ‘Frosted Chocolate’, like a velvety root beer float, and ‘Angel’ Series ‘Tiger Eye’, gold-orange with black stripes.
How to Grow
Eight to ten weeks before last frost sow seeds in flats and cover with a thin layer of soil. Water well, cover with newspaper (they need dark to germinate) and set in spot away from direct light that is 65-70°. Check periodically and water if needed. Germination takes 2-3 weeks. Once true leaves have sprouted, put in cool (55-60°), sunny location or under lights. When large enough, transplant to cell packs or pots. Harden off gradually by placing pots outside during the day for longer periods of time, up to four weeks before last frost date and then transplant into your garden.
I have found that left to themselves in my garden, introductions will cross-pollinate and create whole new hybrids, like the cross in the above photo. This year, I am growing two new V. cornuta & two V. x williamsii hybrids that are very different from each other, so their crosses will be interesting to see in the next few years. Very Darwinian, it’s fun to see how strengths are played out.
Worthy of the effort, these delightful little Viola charmers are sure to garner interest as well as compliments. Best of all, if you sow your own seedlings, there will be extras to share with your gardening friends!
Ooooo…”delft blue” I want some! Great post Eliza, a treat for both the mind and the eye 8^)
I’m definitely going to go search my garden catalogs for seeds of these beauties! Do you have a good seed source for these unusual types?
I ordered online from http://www.swallowtailgardenseeds.com and found their selection varied, prices good and turnaround was quick.
What a delightful post! I Love these flowers and am going to grow some old heirlooms this year in fact. You really know your stuff when it comes to these plants and I appreciate your sharing your knowledge with us. Wonderful!
Thank you, Steve. I am glad to see interest growing in heirlooms, as there are thousands of varieties that are disappearing. Ever since the dawn of agriculture, humans have been selecting for characteristics that of interest to their needs. Some times good varieties are passed up for the latest trends that may not necessarily be better. It is neither good or bad, there is room for both.
Eliza, Great post! I thank you for all the details and hard work you put into the history + making these plants more approachable to most people.We don’t have to just grow the ones in the 6 pack at the big box garden centers. I love all the pictures of these little beauties. I am eager to see what may of crossed in my yard this year, love “Very Darwinian” approach to flowers crossing, and it really is fun! They are the sweetest flower to me:-)
Glad you enjoyed it. Yes, when people ask my garden style, I always reply, “Darwinian.” (LOL! You know, survival of the fittest!) I’m past coddling a plant not suited to my environs. 🙂
I love the Viola cornuta and Tiger Eye. It’s great to learn these. They remind me of the tropical orchids. I don’t think they are related but they have the same striking banner petals which attract the pollinators.
Yes they do look similar, but different family classification, Violaceae vs. Orchidaceae. Thanks for your comment!
I must take a closer look at the three types of violets I have in my garden to see if they’ve crossed. Thanks for the information.
You’re welcome, Mary. Yes, V. cornuta and tricolor often cross in my garden. Glad for your visit.