Sweet violets, violas, and pansies are annual or perennial flowers that are mostly grown for their beauty. The flowers and leaves are edible and can be used in a variety of dishes — not just for a garnish or to top a salad. Sweet violets (Viola odorata) can be candied or used in violet tea, violet cake, and violet syrup. While commonly added to salads, you can also use violet flowers to make vinegars, butters, spreads, and jellies. Sweet violet flowers are as beautiful as they are edible. Their white, pink, blue, or lavender blooms have a sweeter, more perfumed taste than the more colorful blooms of annual violas and pansies. Sweet violet leaves are slightly tart.
Here are the basics of violet growing.
Sweet violets and annual violas and pansies grow best in cool weather. Sweet violet is a clumping perennial that is hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9 and blooms in early spring. It spreads readily and grows best in partly shaded areas. Annual violas and pansies bloom throughout the growing season as long as the temperature stays cool. All are among the earliest flowers to bloom in spring in cold climates and will bloom throughout the winter in milder climates (USDA zone 7 and warmer), such as California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida. They often over winter in cold climates with snow protection or if mulched in fall. Some, such as 'Johnny-Jump-Up', self-sow readily, spreading throughout the garden.
Sweet violets are widely adapted perennials that have a delicate fragrance and taste.
Here are some varieties of sweet violets, colorful hybrid annual pansies, and violas to try in your garden.
Sweet Violet (Viola odorata) — Also known as the English violet or common violet. Most people are familiar with the wild sweet violet but you can also get named varieties of this perennial such as 'Mars' and 'Queen Charlotte'. The plants grow 4 to 8 inches tall and form 1- to 2-inch-diameter leaves. Violets grow best in slight shade and can easily become a weed in lawns or when grown under shrubs and trees.
'Johnny Jump Up' viola (Viola tricolor) — This widely grown viola features smaller, but more abundant flowers than pansies, and is more heat tolerant. The traditional 'Johnny Jump Up' has purple, lavender, and yellow flowers, but newer varieties feature apricot and red blooms, as well.
'Majestic Giant' pansy (Viola wittrockiana) — This hybrid pansy series features large, 3- to 4-inch-diameter flowers in a variety of colors that bloom two weeks earlier than other pansies.
'Padparadja' pansy (Viola wittrockiana) — This is a rare, brilliant orange pansy that can tolerate heat.
'Skippy XL Plum-Gold' viola (Viola cornuta) — This new, award-winning viola features flowers with a unique color combination. Plants have excellent heat tolerance.
'Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow' pansy (Viola hybrida) — These flowers open white, gradually turn light blue, then darken. Plants bloom early and uniformly, and tolerate both heat and cold.
Violets grow best in moist, well-drained, slightly acidic soil high in organic matter. They thrive in the sun while the weather is cool and in part shade as the weather warms. Amend the soil with a 1/2-inch-thick layer of compost before planting.
Pansies are known for their large flowers and ability to grow almost anywhere — even in the snow!
Showcase violets in the vegetable garden, flower garden, or let the perennial violet naturalize under trees and in wooded areas. Violets are easiest planted as transplants since the seeds are small and take many weeks to grow into a transplantable size. Plant perennial or annual violet seedlings in spring a few weeks before your last frost date. Plant annual violas again in fall for autumn color and to over winter in mild winter areas.
If you want to plant seeds, sow them 8 to 12 weeks before transplanting. Keep the soil and air temperatures cool (60°F) for best germination and growth.
Violets have few pest and disease problems. In wet areas slugs may feast on the leaves and flowers. Spread slug bait, such as iron-phosphate, or protect plants in pots by wrapping the container lip with copper strips to prevent damage. If aphids attack new growth, spray plants with insecticidal soap.
Fertilize in spring and again in fall with an all-purpose product to stimulate lush growth and plentiful flowers. Cut back violas and pansies in early summer when warm weather causes the flowers to fade and plants to struggle. Often, when cool fall weather arrives, the plants will perk up and bloom again. Deadhead spent flowers to encourage more blooms.
'Johnny-Jump-Up' violas self-sow rapidly in gardens providing lots of colorful, tasty flowers.
Harvest freshly opened flowers in the morning when the oils are most concentrated and blooms look their best. The more you harvest, the more blooms will form. Harvest the sepals (base of the flowers) with the petals for added flavor