Pretty in Purple-Growing African Violets

Violets and violas can be found both in gardening handbooks and in weed-identification books, proof that one man's weed is another man's flower. Violets and violas are easy to grow--almost too easy. These pretty flowers have been grown in gardens for centuries, even if they were never planted there. Every gardener should grow some of these tiny gems.

Growing violets and violas
Both violets and violas grow in many locations across the world, although most prefer cooler areas. Many varieties escape cultivation and become pests. But how can you dislike such perky invaders? While they will grow in heavy shade, violets and violas both require at least a few hours of sunlight or dappled shade for the best bloom. They will grow in sunny areas, particularly in the North, if they are kept well-watered. Common violets and Labrador Violets are hardy to Zone 3. Some varieties from Asia and southern Europe are not as hardy, so check the zone hardiness before planting. Violets and violas will grow in almost any soil type that is kept moist but is well-drained. They seldom need fertilization and are bothered by few pests or diseases.

Violets and violas are usually purchased as plants. They can be planted at any time of the year as long as they are kept moist. Violas can also be started from seed. The seed can be sown outside where they are to grow as soon as the soil can be worked. Viola seed can also be started inside about 12 weeks before you want blooming plants.

While most violets and violas are considered perennials, individual plants are not long-lived. Most varieties of violets and violas, however, spread by rhizomes and seed quite happily. After you plant them in a suitable place, you should have them for many years. They will quickly cover an area if you let them, so care and forethought should be used in selecting a site to plant them in. Both violets and violas grow well in containers.

Violets and violas bloom best in cool weather. During hot weather they will quit blooming, but they will resume blooming again when the weather cools. Keep dead blooms picked off to encourage a longer bloom time.

There are only slight differences in violets and violas, and all violets belong to the viola family. Violet leaves are generally round or heart shaped. Viola leaves are more oblong and usually have serrated edges. Both violets and viola flowers have five petals and a flower "spur," or tube, at the back that contains nectar. Most violet flowers are very fragrant, although some violas have little scent. The flowers are favorites of bees and butterflies. Many violets and violas also have markings on the petals that direct the pollinator to the honey spur; when they find the treasure they also pollinate the plant. Violets and violas also have another type of flower, rarely seen. It generally appears at the base of the plant in the fall, has no petals and no scent. It is thought to be pollinated by ground beetles and can produce many seeds.

Choosing varieties
The common violet , viola odorata, appears in many color variations, even in the wild. There are white, rose, bicolored, blue and various shades of purple that we call violet. This violet is also known as Sweet Violet, and during Victorian times many large-flowered varieties were developed for cut flowers and for the perfume trade. Some of these varieties still exist and are sold in specialty catalogs.

Birds Foot Violet is native to North American woodlands. It has a pretty lilac and white flower and oddly lobed leaves said to resemble birds feet. Another North American native, known as the Woods Violet, has yellow flowers. The Labrador Violet has pretty purple-shaded foliage as well as tiny violet flowers and is hardy to Zone 3.

The Asian violets or violas often have larger, more oblong leaves and the leaves are often quite striking in color. Silver Samurai has ruffled green foliage streaked with silver and light lavender flowers. Fugi Dawn has arrow-shaped leaves touched with pink and cream and deep-blue flowers. Johnny Jump-Ups or Hearts' Ease have small yellow and purple flowers and are often found growing wild. The cultivated variety is sold as Helen Mount. Skippy XL Red-Gold is a viola with bright red, gold and lavender flowers. Bilbo Baggins is a viola with pastel purple and yellow flowers, each marked with a dark center. Angel Tiger Eyes is a deep golden color with striking black veins and a black throat on each flower. Rebecca is a viola from Germany with nearly white, extremely fragrant flowers that have a purple edge.

Using violets and violas
Violets and violas make excellent, fast-growing ground covers in partial shade. They can be planted in rock and alpine gardens. Violets or violas make excellent container plants, good for cool-season color. The flowers and leaves of violets and violas are edible and make excellent additions to spring salads. The flowers can be crystallized in sugar and used as decorations on cakes.

Both violets and violas had many medicinal uses in the past. They are high in vitamin C and a compound called rutin. Rutin is being studied for its beneficial effects on veins and arteries, making them more flexible and strong. Violet water has long been used as a skin tonic.

Violet and viola flowers lend their color and scent to many liquids; the flowers can be soaked in vinegar or a light cooking oil and the resulting fluid used in cooking. Wine is also made from violet and viola flowers.

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