I’m biased because of how much I love these plants, but violets are absolute treasures in just about any garden space. They’re some of the first flowers to appear in springtime, and their intoxicating fragrance draws all manner of friendly insects to your outdoor space.
Whether you’re growing violets as a groundcover, a decorative border, or for food and medicine, you’re in luck.
These are some of the easiest plants to cultivate, and as beautiful as they are low-maintenance. Here’s everything you need to know about growing these beauties in your own space.
Violet flowers have long been associated with love and devotion and were apparently used in love potions and charms of affection to improve relationships.
Since violets are low-growing and spread readily, they make an exquisite groundcover if you’re looking for alternatives to a grassy lawn. They’re also edible, which makes them naturally dual-purpose, but they have a third purpose in that they’re also medicinal.
Whether you’re cultivating a diverse homestead or simply looking for prettier plants than grass to fill up outdoor space, violets are ideal choices for just about any climate or region.
In fact, depending on where you’re located, there’s likely a violet species that’s indigenous to your area!
These versatile perennial plants are lovely to grow in pots and window boxes, as well as cultivating in lieu of a lawn, or used as decorative borders. Furthermore, they don’t just come in the standard “violet” hue we’re all familiar with. Viola species come in many different hues and shades, from multicolor to white and black.
Common Violet Species
Some of the most popular Viola species include:
- Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia): These blue violets are indigenous to North America and are commonly found in and around heavily wooded areas.
- Sweet Violet (V. odorata): Indigenous to Europe and western/northern Asia, but introduced to North America and Australia, it’s the standard “violet” hue we associate with the word.
- Johnny Jump-Up (V. tricolor): As you may have assumed by its Latin moniker, this species features three distinct hues—purple, white, and yellow. It’s native all over Europe but has been naturalized almost worldwide.
- Alpine Violet (V. labradorica): A dark purple variety commonly found in eastern Europe and throughout Asia.
- Horned violet (V. cornuta): Named for the horn-like spurs on the backs of its petals, this variety comes in various shades of purple, yellow, and white. They’re native to the Pyrenees mountains but can now be found throughout Europe and North America.
Remember, there are lots of overlooked native species, too. Viola trinervata has pretty three-colored flowers, and Viola douglasii features bright yellow ones. Stream violets (V. glabella) are perfect for brightening up moist, shady areas.
Soil and Sun Requirements
Violets are quite forgiving when it comes to their growing environments, but they’re partial to slightly acidic, well-draining soil. This is why violets are often found around the periphery of mixed coniferous and deciduous woodlands: conifer needles, oak leaves, and other foliage creates acidic understories and nearby meadow environments.
If your soil is neutral to alkaline, and has any issues with compaction amend it in preparation for planting. Work in aged compost and peat moss to increase acidity, and either perlite or lava rock for draining and aeration.
As far as light is concerned, Viola species are as forgiving with sunshine as they are with soils. While they’ll do well in direct sunshine, a lot depends on their growing zone.
If you’re in a hotter (Zone 9+) climate, they’re likely to fade and wilt from too much intense sun at midday. Similarly, those grown in zones in 4 and below may not flower if they receive insufficient sunlight.
Ideally, they’ll get six hours of bright-yet-dappled sunshine per day. This is why they thrive close to tree canopies but not directly below them, or as border plants where they get some protection from nearby structures.
Watering and Feeding
Most violets like consistently damp soil, so aim to give them a thorough soaking once a week. They may need more water at the height of summer, however, especially if weather has been dry for an extended period of time.
This only applies to violets planted in the ground, however. If you’re cultivating your violets in pots or planters, you’ll need to water them more frequently. Potted violets may benefit from organic mulch to help retain moisture and add extra nutrients into the soil.
Most Viola species are perennial and may deplete essential nutrients from the soil over time. As such, they benefit from occasional fertilizer application before or during their growing cycle.
Apply aged compost over the area in autumn so it seeps well into the soil over the winter months. This way, the roots will be able to draw nutrition from it as soon as spring arrives. Alternatively, you can feed the area with fertilizer a few times during the growing period.
If you go with commercial fertilizer, aim for a balanced 10-10-10 N-P-K ratio, or 10-15-10 to promote healthier blooms with added phosphorous. Alternatively, if you prefer organic feeds, consider compost tea or a mixture of herbivorous mammal or poultry manure.
Sowing and Propagation
Violets are light-dependent germinators, which means that their seeds need to be kissed by sunshine in order to leap into action. As a result, you’ll need to ensure that they don’t get covered with more than a couple of millimeters of lightweight material.
Choose a rake suited to the area you’ve prepared, e.g., a fork for a small pot or a rake for a lawn. Place seeds four to six inches apart in a pot or planter, sprinkle very lightly with sand or lightweight aged compost, and water in.
For larger areas, broadcast handfuls of seed in wide arcs, followed by a thin coating of sand or compost, and then water in. Alternatively, if you don’t want to cover them, scatter them right after a heavy rain. The wet soil will catch the seeds and hold them in place.
If you’re planting seedlings instead, plant them six inches apart in the prepared area and then water them in well.
Alternatively, if you aim to propagate via division, dig up a healthy plant after it has flowered, and use a clean knife to split its root system. Then plant the roots individually, six inches apart, and water in well.
Whether you plant seeds or split roots, remember that perennial plants take up to three years to take hold properly. Once they do, however, they’ll self-sow and spread with wild abandon.
Pests and Disease to Watch For
While violets are quite resilient and practically thrive on neglect, they may be susceptible to a few issues. These will differ depending on growing conditions or unusual weather patterns.
In fact, you may never encounter them if you’re growing indigenous species that have adapted to local climate shifts. Just keep an eye on your plants regularly to see if any of the following problems arise:
This is a fungal pathogen that can affect several crops and is known as “Southern Blight” in Florida and its surroundings. It’s caused by the Athelia rolfsii fungus, and causes stem lesions just above soil level.
These manifest as white, fuzzy spots on the lower stems, occasionally dotted with small golden-yellow nodules. As the fungus grows, the stems weaken, and the plants die.
If this fungal blight appears, soil solarization and crop rotation can help to treat it, if not eliminate it entirely. Solarization used in tandem with fungicide application (e.g. benzovindiflupyr) has proven effective for long-term fungal elimination.
Many different species can be afflicted by Sphaerotheca. Powdery mildew often takes hold during hot, wet weather and can spread quickly between plants.
If you see white, powdery spots on your violets’ leaves or stems, pull up affected plants immediately and burn them. Don’t toss them into your compost pile, as the fungal spores will just multiply.
Then treat nearby plants as well as the surrounding area with a fungicide. Home remedies for this include garlic or baking soda solutions, or diluted apple cider vinegar.
If reddish-orange spots appear on your violets, you’re likely dealing with rust (Puccinia or Uromyces pathogens). Rust also appears in hot, damp weather but is most often caused by watering from above rather than at the root level.
If rust appears, pull up and destroy affected plants immediately. Copper or sulfur fungicides may be effective to treat it, but your best bet is to solarize the area and then don’t plant anything there for a few years.
If your violets are limp and keeling over, without any lesions or fungus on their aerial parts, you may be dealing with root rot.
While these flowers like consistently moist soil, they don’t do well if their roots get waterlogged for extended periods. Your violets may develop root rot in exceedingly rainy weather or if a hose or sprinkler was left on unintentionally.
Root rot can also happen if the soil pH changes. Test your soil to determine the pH level, and if it seems to have increased in alkalinity, add sphagnum peat or lime to increase acidity.
The larvae of many moth and butterfly species often prey upon violet leaves. Fritillary butterflies are particularly fond of violets, and will lay their eggs on the leaves’ undersides.
Once the caterpillars hatch, they devour everything in sight before fluttering off into the sunset. Try spraying your plants with neem oil or insecticidal soap regularly to dissuade them from obliterating your garden.
These slippery invertebrates also occasionally feast upon violets, especially if there aren’t other fleshy-leaved plants available.
If you have hens, ducks, or Guinea fowl, let them free-graze amongst your violet plants, and they’ll gobble them all up for you. We have lots more tips for controlling slugs in our guide.
Since violets are so delicious, they’ve been eaten by humans for thousands of years. As you can imagine, many herbivore species share the opinion that these plants are tasty treats, and thus snack on them whenever possible.
If you have deer, rabbits, groundhogs, or squirrels in the area, know that they may help themselves to your lawn or garden when they crave flowery salads. Fences can deter their advances, as can garlic, hot pepper, or predator urine or feces.
All Viola species have edible leaves and flowers. They’re some of the most popular edible ornamentals. The young, heart-shaped leaves taste a bit like spinach, only with a mildly floral aftertaste.
You can eat them raw, in salads and pestos, or used like spinach in soups, sauces, and baked dishes.
The flowers are fragrant and have a slightly sweet flavor, and have a wide variety of uses. Toss them raw into salads, use them as garnishes for ravioli, sugar them and use them to decorate cakes or cookies, or boil them into syrup to transform into jam.
Violets have also been used to flavor sugar, or to make traditional French sugar candies.
Medicinally, violet leaves and flowers have a cooling, calming effect and can be used in tea as a mild sedative. Furthermore, tea or syrup made from these aerial parts is invaluable for various respiratory issues.
This may help to clear mucous out of the sinuses and chest, while its mucilaginous effects can soothe sore throats raw from coughing or postnasal drip.
While violets’ aerial parts—all the bits that grow above soil level—have edible and medicinal properties, please note that their roots can have an unpleasant effect if consumed.
This is because their high saponin content can induce nausea and vomiting if eaten. When and if you harvest violets for snacks or medicine, make sure that you snip off any roots before consuming them.
Additionally, be careful about eating plants that may have come into contact with chemical pesticides or insecticides. If your adjacent neighbors hose their lawns down with these chemicals, they may leach into the groundwater and affect the surrounding area, including your plants.