Try dainty, tasty violas in your garden

These are many of the newer color options for Viola tricolor, but note how the purple flowered older variety is larger. (Maureen Gilmer/TNS)

These are many of the newer color options for Viola tricolor, but note how the purple flowered older variety is larger. (Maureen Gilmer/TNS)

I first discovered the durability of violas while working at Roger’s Gardens, creating colorscapes for the rich and famous. We used these little progenitors of the pansy often while planting fall and winter annual color. Unlike the fancy hybrids, these are old ones, quite enchanting because they’ve changed little. They are the species known and grown for millennia in the Old World.

The species Viola tricolor is a native wildflower of Britain and Europe. It’s named for the flowers that feature three colors: purple, yellow and white, on the same blossom. Like all wildflowers, it is eager to grow from seed sown in the fall or winter. They also readily self-sow in the garden year after year once established, if soil and moisture are right.

They have long been called Johnny Jump-Ups because the jaunty stems hold the pansylike flowers high and in profusion. The nickel-sized blooms are dainty, becoming a mass of happy little faces. For those who love the color purple, you’ll find it best among these violas for rich saturated color.

The beauty of the old viola is its love of cooler conditions as well as the ability to thrive in both full sun and part shade in hotter climates. Here in the West, where winters are mild, the conditions become ideal for the violas in the winter. That makes them one of the best annuals to enjoy during the off or in-between seasons. They continue from cool spring in your garden until the heat of summer finally kills them off.

The best part about the violas is they’re edible. Little Johnnys are among my favorite to use in the kitchen. In medieval times, they loved a viola and onion salad, in which the entire plant as well as the flowers are eaten fresh. This opens the door to all kinds of new ideas for creative cooks. There is nothing cuter than a white cake decorated with fresh-picked viola faces pressed into the icing. Cooks should strive to grow masses of violas to allow plenty of color and cuttings.

Viola faces were popular decorative motifs in Victorian times as well as art nouveau. They were grown to press between pages of books for a lovely little dried flower for art or letters. The dried flowers could be easily slipped into a folded letter so they fall into the lap or desk of the reader as the paper unfolds.

Over the years the original purple, yellow and white flowers evolved into some new color options through breeding. They are very bright and fun, but more compact and not as likely to self-sow. Overall, they remain quite similar to the original. These are stocked in garden centers in the fall where it’s warm enough, so they can be planted out into the cool ground.

Viola tricolor remains a wildflower, so don’t waste money on bit plants. Instead buy lots of small seedlings in six-packs so you’ll have enough growing to cut flowers to your heart’s content.

In the landscape, violas are sown under winter dormant roses to cover the ground with seasonal color. The flower is a staple in herb gardens everywhere too as edibles and for nature crafting. They belong in winter vegetable gardens among the kale and chard for color and garnish. Let them go to seed and they’ll come back as volunteers every year.

As Johnnys grow older, their little mound spreads out. They’ll cascade off a curb, raised bed or container edge. This is a no-brainer for hanging baskets, wooly wall pockets or color pots. They do particularly well in side yards where conditions are well protected.

It’s easy to sow seed any time the soil doesn’t freeze. This puts them in place for the spring rain that makes them pop up and grow quickly. Rough up the ground where you’re sowing so the tiny seed lodges in the nooks and crannies so it won’t be washed away or eaten by birds. Then sit back and enjoy the holidays knowing the rest is up to nature.


Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at