By Dan Gill
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
(10/21/16) Pansies and violas are popular cool-season bedding plants used to beautify gardens in Louisiana during fall, winter and spring. Pansies and violas thrive in the chilly nights and cool to mild days of the cool season from November to April. The cold weather of winter, even if temperatures should reach the teens, will not bother these plants in the least.
What does viola mean?
The term “viola” can be confusing. Viola is the Latin genus name for a group of related plants that are commonly called pansy, viola or violet.
In gardening, the term “violet” is typically the common name used for perennial Viola species that may be native wildflowers or garden ornamentals. The common name “viola” is used for hybrid plants developed mainly by crossing Viola cornuta with other species. They produce relatively small flowers on compact plants in a wide variety of colors. Finally, the term “pansy” is the common name used for Viola x wittrockiana. Pansies produce large flowers in many colors, often with “faces.”
History of pansies
The origin of the plant we now call pansy began in England in the early 1800s. History credits William Thompson with crossing various species of Viola to create the new hybrid species Viola x wittrockiana we call pansies. He also found the first pansy that had large patches of dark colors on the lower three petals, which form the classic pansy “face.”
The pansy now has one of the widest color ranges of any bedding plant and includes red, purple, blue, navy, bronze, pink, black, yellow, white, lavender, orange, apricot and mahogany. The five-petaled flowers generally have a round shape and may be of a single clear color or have two or three colors with a face.
The plant itself is compact, generally not more than 6 inches in both height and spread, and bears many stems. The medium green, coarsely notched leaves are oval or heart-shaped.
Gardeners often walk right past the violas and head straight for the pansies when choosing bedding plants at the nursery. Pansy flowers are much larger than violas, and in the nursery they look much more impressive. But violas can beat pansies when it comes to garden performance. They can produce more color impact and show greater stamina to weather when compared to pansies.
Flowers on viola plants are often so prolific they can obscure the foliage, and the smaller flowers hold up to rainy winter weather much better than pansies. Completely winter hardy in Louisiana, violas are an outstanding choice for beds or containers. From a fall planting, violas will typically bloom until early or mid-May.
Sorbet violas are Louisiana Super Plant selections. They are more uniform and compact than other types of violas. Sorbet violas come in an amazing variety of colors and are highly recommended for Louisiana gardens.
Planting and growing
Gardeners creating colorful cool-season gardens will find cell packs and pots of pansies and violas at local nurseries or garden centers now. It’s best to wait to plant these plants until daytime highs are staying mostly in the 70s or lower.
Select the flower colors that suit your garden design and choose plants that are stocky with dark green foliage. Unless you need an immediate full-looking bed, small pansy and viola plants in cell packs are a better bargain than transplants in 4-inch pots. Planted this early, transplants have plenty of time to grow into large, robust plants. When planting after February (late in the cool season), choose the larger plants in 4-inch pots for best results.
Plant pansies and violas into well-prepared beds that are sunny to partly shady. Although pansies and violas bloom best with full sun, they will perform well with morning sun and afternoon shade.
Prepare the bed by digging in a 2-to-4-inch layer of compost, peat moss or aged manure and a light sprinkling of a general-purpose fertilizer. Pansies are heavy feeders and will not perform as well without sufficient fertilizer. Apply a teaspoon of slow release fertilizer in each hole as you plant them or apply more granular fertilizer in January. An alternative is to fertilize once or twice a month with a soluble fertilizer using a hose-end sprayer.
When planting, first water the pansies and violas while they are still in their containers or cell packs. Then, carefully remove the plant from the container. If they are in cell packs or pots, place your fingers gently around the top of the container and turn the container upside down. A firm squeeze or push on the bottom should dislodge the plant right into your hand.
Place the root ball in the hole, and push soil around it to cover the roots. Make sure you leave the crown of leaves above the soil because planting pansies too deeply can lead to crown rot. Don’t space transplants too far apart, or they won’t fill in the bed. From the center of one plant to the center of the next, the distance should be about 6 inches. Finally, mulch and thoroughly water the newly planted transplants.
The pansies and violas you plant now should last until April or early May. To encourage continued flowering over a longer period, pinch off faded flowers if you can.
Sorbet violas are a smaller-growing pansy relative and have been named Louisiana Super Plants. (Photo by Allen Owings)
Pansies. (Photo by Allen Owings)