What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you read that heading? If you’re a musician, perhaps you thought of the violin-like stringed instrument that is seen in a string quartet. If you’re a gardener or a lover of flowers, perhaps you thought of the relative of modern pansies. Unlike their much larger cousins, which have large ‘faces’, viola flowers are small, barely 2cm across.
Violas and pansies are part of quite a large family, collectively known as violas, which is made up of more than 500 species, incorporating annuals, biennials and perennials. Many of them have five-petalled flowers which are reminiscent of faces; each variety having its own unique appearance.
Viola tricolor, the species we usually call ‘viola’ are fast-growing, self-seeding and their appearance is a sign that spring is on the way. The tiny plants appear in the garden (or in garden centres) in mid- to late winter and quickly spread out to cover an area of about 20cm across. They come in a variety of colours but the ones we may know as ‘Johnny Jump Up’ are usually purple, yellow or white. This season we have added a new variety, Viola ‘Arkwright Ruby’.
Viola flowers are edible and make a colourful addition to a garden salad; I find their taste to be quite ‘green’ or ‘grass like’. They can be ‘frosted’ with egg white and caster sugar then used as a decoration on cakes or other deserts.
Although the common name ‘heartsease’ may suggest their use for heart problems, this is not the case. The name refers to their cheerful face causing the spirits to be lifted or ‘easing the heart’. Traditionally, violas were used medicinally for skin diseases and respiratory problems. The flowers have been used as a source of natural dyes: green, blue and yellow.
HOW TO GROW VIOLAS
Seed of violas is sown in late winter and spring (after frosts) in seed trays. The seed is tiny; I find it easier to sow it on the surface of moist seed raising mix and cover it lightly with more seed raising mix. Press down to get good contact between the soil and the seed. Water lightly and keep moist. Seedlings should emerge in 7-14 days.
Transfer seedlings from the seed tray to individual pots when they have their first true leaves – when the seedlings are big enough to handle. Because slugs think all young, tender greens are fair game on our patch, we rarely plant them in the garden until they are 5cm tall. Once in the garden, they grow quickly – 20cm tall and at least that wide. Plant them fairly densely, a mass display looks better than individual plants. They will need a rich, moist, slightly acidic soil to bloom their best. If they suffer water stress, they tend to grow straggly and don’t flower as much.
Allow some of the flowers to go to seed, you’ll probably never have to raise seedlings again. We bought one packet of 150 seeds in 2016 and sowed about half of it. Now we have hundreds, probably thousands, of flowers around our property every spring; and we don’t have to do anything except provide water. This year, we haven’t even had to do that because of the ‘La Nina’ weather system present over eastern Australia.
FUN FINAL FACT
Many of those brightly coloured, huge pansies that are popular in the garden centre, and sold for containers and gardens in the cooler months of late winter and spring, have their origins in the humble Viola tricolor.
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DISCLAIMER: The information presented in this blog post is written for general knowledge and/or entertainment purposes only. Please do further research if you are unfamiliar with this plant. While all care is taken to be accurate, Hillside Homegrown & Handmade accepts no responsibility for actions taken by the reader because of information shared in this article.