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Gardening From Southern California

by Gerald Burke
by Gerald Burke


Gerald Burke is a freelance travel and horticultural writer. He spent 35 years in the seed business, 30 of them with Burpee, and is a member of the Garden Writers Association and the North American Travel Journalists Association

November 26, 2006

What’s the difference between pansies and violas?

Not much, any more, as plant breeders have worked on bigger and bigger violas, and sometimes smaller pansies. It used to be that violas were considered the smaller flowered little pansies, just a little bigger than the really little ones called Johnny Jump-up. Today there are several varieties of violas that are almost as big as some pansies, but the really good news is that violas do better in our area as spring merges into summer than do the big flowered pansies.

In truth, botanically, pansies are viola wittrockiana, and they and violas are in the same family, but with many distinct differences, including the size of the flower. Some of the recent introductions of violas, such as the Sorbet series, have considerably longer life in the flower garden as the spring days go into summer heat, and many violas have better plant habits than pansies, more compact and are often more floriferous.

I enjoy violas in the garden because they seem to be easier to grow, not objecting to our decomposed granite and sandy soils, and they manage better when winter rains come along, being less susceptible to crown rot than pansies. They make good borders, good massed plantings, and do well in containers. Not as usable as a cut flower as pansies, nonetheless they do make small bouquets.

It’s late to plant from seed, although if you have a small portable greenhouse you can still get them going to bloom before summer. But nurseries and garden centers will usually have several different varieties from which to choose, already in bloom and ready to go into the soil.

I have found the Sorbet series to be among the best so it’s one to look for. In the Sorbets there is a separate color called Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and it’s an interesting one to have in the garden. The blooms start out sort of white and then change to light blue and then to a deep blue. Others are the Penny series, with a full range of colors, plants around five to seven inches tall and spreading to around six inches, with good solid colors and whiskers in the faces. The Jewel series has some that are bi-colors and are early to bloom. From the same Japanese seed company that bred the Jewel series, are the Gems, some with clear faces, some with blotches and a good range of colors.

While violas will tolerate more wet soil than pansies, they should be planted where they can dry off after winter rains and where water won’t stand around them. Fertilize a couple of times during the growing season and water when rains fail. Violas can be planted close together for a mass effect, and do well in containers.

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