As we head into autumn and winter, summer blooms are beginning to fade, and the time has come to bring in some cool weather flowers. Winter-flowering pansies and violas can provide a vibrant splash of colour during the colder months, but people often find it hard to tell the difference between the two. According to the Horticultural Trades Association the names “pansy” and “viola” are interchangeable for many visitors to garden centres.
"All pansies are violas, but not all violas are pansies"
Pansies were actually derived from violas, so technically speaking all pansies are violas but not all violas are pansies. While the blooms of violas are smaller than those of pansies, violas do have more blooms per plant, meaning they create a thicker layer of coverage. Violas also like to trail a little bit and are shorter than pansies—typically at a height of 3 to 8 inches. They can create a pretty overflow effect in pots and containers - simply position them near the edge, with larger plants in the middle.
Because pansies have much larger blooms than violas, they tend to be a more popular selection for an instant pop of colour in the garden. They’re a bit taller—6 to 12 inches—than violas. They can also be found in a greater variety of colours, ranging from yellow, orange, red, and pink to violet, blue and white. Violas’ blooms are typically found in violet, blue, yellow, and white, with a few darker burgundy shades in between.
"Small but mighty"
However, violas are tougher in the wintertime than pansies, so they’re quicker to recover after hard freezes. Because of this, violas will have more blooms in January and February than pansies will. We recommend you enjoy the best of both worlds and choose a selection of both for your winter garden. Although pansies are likely a more popular option than violas, if you’re looking for the hardiest plants that provide full coverage and bloom throughout the winter and into the spring, consider choosing the small but mighty viola for the majority of your selection over pansies. If you prefer bigger, bolder blooms, choose a higher proportion of pansies.
Both of these beauties thrive in full sun, though violas may bloom longer with partial shade.
Count the petals
Although size and spread is usually a good way to determine whether you're looking at a pansy or a viola, taking a closer look at the petals with give you a definitive answer. Pansies always have four petals pointing upwards and only one pointing downwards, whereas violas have two petals pointing up and three petals pointing down.
Annual or Perennial?
Violas and pansies are short-lived perennials, meaning the plant will usually last a few years before needing to be replaced. They do, however, tend to die out in the heat of summer, and will therefore need replacing for the next season. Many gardeners accept this and grow them as annuals, replacing them every year. You can grow them for spring bloom, or autumn bloom or both, if you can keep them alive during the summer.
They’re Both Winners
Whichever plant you choose, pansies and violas will provide months of colour in cooler temperatures and provide a cheerful seasonal display, whether in flowerbeds, or autumn and winter container arrangements.
Can't decide? Visit one of our Sussex-based garden centres and speak to a member of our friendly and knowledgeable plant team.
Fun facts about violas and pansies
- The name pansy comes from the French word ‘pensée’, a thought, which refers to their status as a love-flower –when one was found and picked, the idea was to think long and hard about your heart’s desire, and this would cause them to respond with equal fervour.
- Across the pond, violas are often called Johnny jump-ups, as they tend to self-seed and can spread throughout your garden on their own.
- The name Viola was imported into Late Middle English in the mid-15th century, as the flower was regarded as a symbol of remembrance.
- The name "love in idleness" was meant to imply the image of a lover who has little or no other employment than to think of his beloved.
- The name "heart's-ease" came from St. Euphrasia, whose name in Greek signifies cheerfulness of mind.
- The woman, who refused marriage and took the veil, was considered a pattern of humility, hence the name "humble violet".
- In Scandinavia, Scotland, and German-speaking countries, the pansy (or its wild parent Viola tricolour) is or was known as the "stepmother"; the name was accompanied by a story about a selfish stepmother, told to children while the teller plucked off corresponding parts of the blossom to fit the plot.
- In Italy the pansy is known as flammola (little flame).
A tasty treat
A popular addition to the home herb garden, viola and pansy flowers and leaves are edible and often used to decorate cakes and other baked treats. Violas contain vitamins C & A, and antioxidants. Leaves and flowers can be eaten raw or cooked. Flowers are usually chosen for cakes and salads, whereas leaves can be added as a thickener to soup.
It has been claimed that violas can provide relief for various skin complaints, cold and flu symptoms, lymph support, asthma and epilepsy. They have also been suggested to contain anti-inflammatory agents.