Winter violas and pansies provide a much needed flash of colour in the dark of winter. Their consistent ability to flower in winter regardless of cold temperatures, and their tolerance of wet weather and darker days makes them a go-to option for gardeners, particularly in public parks and in public raised beds.
In a botanical sense, all pansies are part of the viola genus, although what we might refer to as pansies tend to have much larger flowers than violas. Typically, what you might refer to as a pansy plant will have 2 or 3 flowers (such as the photo here), compared with 12 or 13 flowers on a viola plant (such as Viola Sorbet Yellow Frost). The variety of plants on offer is more wide ranging than garden centres would lead us to believe, in terms of the size of plant, the shape and colour of flower. And you can also expect to see pansies and violas across the year in different locations and seasons (many wild varieties grow year round).
Historically speaking, pansies and violas have been held in high regard, and the actual word ‘pansy’ comes from the French ‘pensée’, meaning ‘thought’. In addition, herbalists have long associated pansies and violas as healing herbs for skin conditions, and the extract is still sold as a tincture today (although no scientific evidence to reinforce such claims has been carried out). The pansy is also mentioned by Shakespeare in Hamlet, whereby Ophelia, speaking of herbs comments: “And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts…”.. Vincent van Gogh also took an interest in the genus in 1887, and his painting Mand met Viooltjes (see here) showed how this dainty yet hardy plant played a central role in culture and in our imaginations throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and continues to do so today.
All pansies and violas are relatively easy to grow, and will follow the sun or the best light, which is why you will often find that gardeners have placed them in an open and unshaded spot. Be sure to dead head to encourage new flowers throughout the season and water occasionally, if dry. Whichever varieties you can find, plant en masse, for the full effect, and enjoy some colour in the garden this winter.