We Answer the Eternal Question – What’s the Difference Between Violas and Pansies

Last update: 1 year ago

pansies vs violas
By randy andy / Shutterstock

Even green thumbs think it’s an uphill battle to say which one is a pansy and which one is a viola. That’s what happens when people emphasize classifications rather than plants. Everything gets all complicated and confusing.


The mystery of the Violaceae family goes deep into even more enigmatic waters when you take into account the African violets – these stunning little beauties hail from the green fields of Africa (no Hemingway pun here, honest) and are totally unrelated to the viola genus.

Being a lovely quiz question aside, we won’t throw you in the deep end and leave you wondering. So welcome to the murky world of violas and pansies.

Violas and pansies both belong to the same genus viola which encompasses slightly less than 600 varieties. Cultivating and hybridizing were very much in vogue in Europe as soon as the Dark Ages were over. But by the late 18th century, the craze was more or less out of proportion, and hybridizing, in particular, was in full swing.

That’s when the so-called “pansies” (its origin is the word penséem, in Middle French, it stands for thought) entered the lighted stage and became the stuff of legends. Or did they become an important part of the popular consciousness even earlier? What’s for sure is that pansies/violas were immortalized by Shakespeare as the “love-in-idleness” plant.

And the lines “little western flower, / Before milk white, now purple with love’s wound, / And maidens call it love-in-idleness” still ring true today. Mind it, that’s from Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was written at the very dawn of the 16th century.

Another notable person who provided the violas/pansies with some love was Darwin, describing them as “beautiful, flat, symmetrical, velvet-like flowers, more than two inches in diameter, magnificently and variously coloured”.

Need a Gardener?

Enter your postcode to view our rates and availability in your area.

Enter your postcode

For questions about the services we offer visit our main site or you can always call us at 020 3404 4881

It looks very likely that pansies were the result of hybridizing between two or more wild violas, with Viola wittrockiana, now synonymous with pansies, Viola tricolor and Viola lutea being the most likely varieties involved. The painstaking efforts put by the breeders of that era paid off and the result was the pansy.

That would have been a happy ending to a complicated story, but here comes the next twist – many other hybrids from around the same time were named “pansies”. The result is that we have the majority of all new viola varieties produced in this day and age classified as “pansies”. Not very scientific.

So let’s focus on their perceived physical differences instead – pansies have distinctive blotching that resembles a face. They also have more compact growth than violets – pansies are 6 to 12 inches tall as opposed to violas’ 3-8 inches and have larger leaves. Pansy and violet petals also differ somehow.

But that’s all superficial and doesn’t hold as a golden rule that has to be followed at all costs. So don’t be surprised if you buy a viola and it grows 10 inches tall or similar. Truth is, pansies will readily interbreed with violas and for the regular customer or the regular salesperson, it’s for all intents and purposes the same plant.

Growing and taking care of Violas – Covering the basics

Violas are perennials usually grown as annuals. Beautiful in their own innately tender way, violas are fun to grow and comparatively easy to care for. What’s more, a viola bedding or even a lonely, but lovely viola plant in a container can light up even the most depressive place.

The first thing to know about violas is that they love cool, moist places with moderately rich, well-drained soil.

It may be a small plant – most of the popular viola varieties don’t have a towering presence with their modest 3-6 inch height, but don’t let that mislead you. Truth is, without boasting an imposing figure, it’s a hardy plant that can easily outlive a bitterly cold winter.

It’s somehow surprising how cold resistant these unusually tender flowers are. But living creatures are not to be judged by sizes, as the Yoda saying goes (without the grammar).

At the end of the day, Milton Friedman, possibly the most influential economist of the 20th century, stood only 5 feet 3 inches tall, but was, in many ways, a perfect definition for the word giant. Kinda like the violas.

Back to the violas, they produce lovely blooms with clear, naturally clean colours that are the envy of every garden. With jewel-like colouring – ranging from white to dark violet – it’s a perfect plant to grow with its tender, Shakespeare-esque qualities.

How to plant and grow the perfect Viola for your garden

The answer is – start from seeds. Violas could be grown in the garden – these cute versatile flowers are more than adept when it comes to self-seeding, so just plant them and let them be.

Before that though, prepare the soil – you want it to be moist, rich and with good drainage. Soil with lots of organic matter is key to gardening success, as most plants simply love it. Violas are no different.

Providing them with some extra love in the form of a slow-release fertilizer would also be highly appreciated by your violas.

Dig about 6 inches deep and then add an inch of organic material like compost or similar. Only then the soil will be ready for you to scatter the viola seeds. Then cover them with some good soil of your choosing.

Two important things to be taken into account – clean the soil from stones and lumps before planting the violas and always make sure that the seedbed is moderately moist – or to put it in another way, water them regularly.

As seeds grow, space them 6 to 8 inches apart, in order for them to have enough space to spread and thrive.

Generally speaking, the members of the viola family enjoy full sun. That said, violas like cool weather better than anything else, and you would do well to partly shade them during the summer if you live south of zone 7.

Violas are hardy little creatures, so don’t worry that much about them during the winter – many viola species find it relatively comfortable to live and thrive in the southern parts of Canada. Respect.

Even though they don’t look at their prettiest when you have temperatures below zero and especially when buried in snow, don’t underestimate their toughness, violas are merely bidding their time. And when it comes, you would be rewarded with a thing of enormous beauty.

Blooming time is usually twelve to fourteen weeks after planting. Once your violas find their true, stunning self, you can help blooming and growing by removing spent flowers.

Growing the perfect Viola in a container

Violas lead quite a happy life in a container. If you are aiming for spring bloom, plant them four to twelve weeks before the last expected frost.

So tiny and yet most violas have evolved into flowers that withstand freezing temperatures without much fuss. Some of the new varieties are especially cold resistant.

The rule of thumb is that gardeners in milder climates should start seeding in the summer, preferably July or August, so violas will be ready to bloom once autumn arrives.

Either way, seeds should be planted 4-6 weeks before transplanting. Then follow these simple steps to grow the perfect viola in a container:

  • Start with a sterile potting mix with slow-release fertilizer
  • Moisten it thoroughly and then fill the small pots. The standard is that you should keep on filling until there’s about quarter of an inch to the top of the container
  • In every tiny pot, plant a few seeds and then cover it with moist soil – almost to the top

Viola seeds need darkness to germinate, so make sure they are properly shielded from all light sources

  • Viola seeds get cozy with temperature in the 18º-21ºC range (that’s 65º-70ºF) and that’s what you should be aiming for. They also love it if you keep the moisture levels up. Seeds begin to germinate within a fortnight.
  • Once seedlings begin to show up, move them to a clean, well-lighted place (not another Hemingway reference then) – either full sun or artificial source of light.
  • Then you have to be well-prepared to welcome the true leaves. To help the strongest ones reach their full potential, cut the weak seedlings off.
  • The seedlings like it cooler, so keep the temperature in the 13º-15ºC range.

Transplanting the perfect Viola into the garden

Like a kid that’s soon to start primary school, you have to take your time with your baby viola. Don’t throw it to the wolves, but rather make a plan for a step-by-step integration to the cold world outside.

Hardening viola seedlings includes moving them out in the open for a small amount of time – 4 hours a day is a good start – in a well-shaded place. Then, a day by day, gradually increase the amount of time your seedlings spend outside and let them get more and more love from the sun. Always check the soil – it should be moist, always.

You can plant your violas in the garden in a fortnight or so – and let mother nature do the rest. Even if there’s a light frost, worry not, the violas are survivors.

Need a Gardener?

Enter your postcode to view our rates and availability in your area.

Enter your postcode

For questions about the services we offer visit our main site or you can always call us at 020 3404 4881

The art of growing Violas

“Knowledge is power and knowledge could be the difference between life and death”, goes the famous Francis Bacon saying (that’s Francis Bacon, the 17th-century English philosopher and statesman, not his 20th-century artistic namesake) and it definitely rings true when it comes to growing and taking caring of violas.

Follow the information above properly, and you are sure to grow the perfect violas. It’s a fulfilling experience that’s sure to help the beautification of your home and garden. You can even get a tip or two what you can do with violas from the wild edibles article in our blog. Wish you a pleasant seeding and growing. It would be.


2 CommentsLeave a comment

    • Hey Bill, definitely, slugs/snails love eating pansies and violas, good catch! You can check our article on the matter of slugs in a vegetable garden here, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *