Viola Plant Profile

violas growing outdoors

The Spruce / Kara Riley

There are over 500 different species in the Viola genus, including annuals, perennials, and even some subshrubs. Collectively, they are known as violas, though individual distinctive garden types are usually called pansies, johnny-jump-ups, or violets. As a group, violas include both species plants and many hundreds of hybrids and cultivars.

The varieties grown as garden plants are mostly small-flowered annuals or short-lived perennials. Many will self-seed and give you years of delight. Violas are primarily cool-season bloomers; they are perfect for starting and ending the season in colder climates and for bridging the seasons in warmer zones, where they can remain in bloom throughout the winter. The timing for planting violas will depend on your climate.

Violas are edible flowers and make unexpected garnishes and salad ingredients. They can also be candied for a frosted effect or used to decorate cakes or other confections.

Botanical Name Violaceae is the genus with over 500 species
Common Name Sweet violet, Johnny-Jump-Up, garden pansy, pansy, violet
Plant Type Annuals or short-lived perennials
Mature Size 6 to 10 inches tall
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Type Rich, moist, well-draining soil
Soil pH 5.4 to 5.8
Bloom Time Spring or fall bloom (or both)
Flower Color Light to deep violet, white, blue, yellow, cream, and multi-colors
Hardiness Zones 3 to 8 (USDA)
Native Area Northern hemisphere
different colored violas
The Spruce / Kara Riley 
closeup of purple violas
The Spruce / Kara Riley
closeup of a pink viola
The Spruce / Kara Riley

How to Grow Violas

Pansies and the other violas are best grown in humusy, moist soil, such as a peat-based potting mix, or garden soil heavily amended with organic material. They will grow in either full sun or part shade, but in hotter climates, more shade is appreciated.

Violas are often the first seedlings for sale in nurseries in spring in colder climates and at the end of the summer in warm areas. Look for healthy plants with lots of buds. Mounding violas should be spaced about six to eight inches apart. Trailing or spreading varieties can be planted 10 to 12 inches apart. Violas begin blooming about 12 to 14 weeks after planting seeds. V. tricolor (Johnny Jump Up) varieties bloom about two weeks earlier than V. cornuta (horned violet)—‘Penny’ and ‘Sorbet’ will bloom 9 to 10 weeks from sowing. These plants will bloom constantly, but flowers will be more plentiful if you deadhead the spent flowers. Expect violas to go dormant or die back during the hottest months of the summer.

Violas' size, compact habit, and long flowering period make them perfect for containers. Trailing varieties are exquisite in hanging baskets and tumbling over the edge of containers and window boxes.

Outdoors, the mounded plants make a lovely edging along a path or to define a garden border. Violas are as at-home in woodland settings as they are filling crevices in rock walls. Combine them with other cool-weather lovers, such as snapdragons, calendula, and Dianthus. Or tuck violas between spring-flowering bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils, to fill the space as the bulbs fade.

starting violas indoors
The Spruce / Kara Riley 

Growing from Seeds

Violas are easy to start from seed. They are quite happy to self-seed all over your garden. If you would like to start your own indoors, the process is very straightforward. Start seed about 8 to 12 weeks before transplanting. Mature violas can withstand occasional freezing temperatures, but new transplants may be damaged if exposed to a freeze. Warm climate gardeners transplanting in the fall should start their seeds in mid-summer.

  1. Fill small pots or flats with sterile potting mix to about 1/4 inch below the top edge. Sprinkle two to three seeds in each cell or pot and cover lightly with the more moistened potting mix. Note: Violas need darkness to germinate, so cover the seeds completely.
  2. Set in a warm (65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit) location and keep moist. On top of the refrigerator is a good spot. Seeds should begin to germinate in 10 to 14 days. Once the seeds sprout, move them to a sunny window or place them under plant lights.
  3. When the first true leaves appear, you must thin the pot or cell to the strongest looking seeding by pinching or cutting the others at the soil line. At this point, a temperature of 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit is fine. You can also begin feeding your seedlings with any good balanced, water-soluble fertilizer.
  4. When temperatures and weather permit transplanting outdoors, begin to "harden off" the seedlings by giving them increasingly long visits outdoors over a period of 10 to 14 days. Start with one to two hours of sunlight, and gradually increase their exposure. Make sure the soil stays moist during this hardening off period.
  5. Once the seedlings have grown accustomed to full days outdoors, you can plant them permanently into the garden or into their outdoor pots.

You can also grow from seeds sown directly into the garden. Carefully prepare the planting area by amending it with organic matter, then loosen the soil and sprinkle seeds. Cover with about 1/4 inch of soil, and water well. Keep the seedbed moist. As the seedlings develop, thin them to about 6 to 8 inches apart, transplanting the excess seedlings to other locations.

Light

Violas like full sun, but not the heat it brings. This isn’t a problem in cool spring temperatures, but when planting in the summer, make sure they get some shade during the hottest part of the afternoon. Mulch and water will help offset the stress of high temperatures.

Water

Water regularly, but allow the soil to dry out between waterings. They can tolerate some drought but will bloom best with regular watering.

Temperature and Humidity

Violas love the cool weather of early spring and thrive in milder temperatures from 40 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. With proper care, they can bloom all summer and most will bloom again in the fall. Or, particularly in hot, southern climates, they can be removed and replaced with another flower during the summer, then planted again when cooler weather returns in the fall.

Fertilizer

Use a slow-release fertilizer into the soil. Fertilize in the spring and again in late summer to promote a fall bloom.

Pruning

To promote blooming and extend the flowering period, remove or deadhead faded flowers by pinching off the blooms at the base of the flower stem. You can revive leggy or overgrown plants by cutting them back to about 3 to 4 inches tall.

Varieties of Viola

There are several types of violas commonly used as garden plants:

  • Viola x wittrockiana is the familiar garden pansy. This hybrid is a short-lived perennial or biennial with larger flowers, but they are usually grown as annuals in colder climates. Plants grow about 8 inches tall and have 2- to 3-inch flowers that can be single-colored or patterned. This is the most popular of the violas, with dozens of different cultivars available. It works well in pots and baskets.
  • Viola tricolor is more commonly known as Johnny-Jump-Up. It is a small plant that is one of the genetic parents of pansies. Some hybrid pansies will revert to Johnny-Jump-Ups as the dropped seeds sprout up as volunteer seedlings. In the garden, it is often used as an edging plant or as a filler.
  • Viola sororia is commonly known as the wild blue violet. It is a native to wooded areas and often finds its way to cultivated gardens and turf lawns where it is usually regarded as a weed—unless deliberately encouraged in native woodland gardens.
  • Viola cornuta is known as the tufted or horned violet, and resembles the pansy, but with a smaller flower. These are spreading perennials with 1 1/2-inch two-toned flowers above a rosette of leaves growing 6 to 10 inches tall.

Common Pests/ Diseases

To avoid gray mold, don’t let your plants sit in cool, wet conditions. Make sure your violas get plenty of sunshine and have good air circulation. If you notice aphids, wash the plants off with a strong stream of water, or, for severe problems, treat with insecticidal soap.