Viola (plant)

Viola (plant)
Viola odorata (type species)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Eudicots
(unranked): Rosids
Order: Malpighiales
Family: Violaceae
Genus: Viola

List of Viola species

Viola (US play /vˈlə/ and UK /ˈv.ələ/)[1] is a genus of flowering plants in the violet family Violaceae, with around 400–500 species distributed around the world. Most species are found in the temperate Northern Hemisphere; however, viola species (commonly called violets, pansies or heartsease) are also found in widely divergent areas such as Hawaii, Australasia, and the Andes in South America.

Most Viola species are perennial plants, some are annual plants, and a few are small shrubs. A number of species are grown for their ornamental flowers in borders and rock gardens; the garden pansy in particular is an extensively used spring and autumn/winter bedding and pot plant. Viola and violetta are terms used by gardeners and generally in horticulture for neat, small-flowered hybrid plants intermediate in size between pansies and violets.[2][3]



Viola species typically have heart-shaped, scalloped leaves, though a number have palmate leaves or other shapes. The vast majority of Viola species are herbaceous, and a substantial number are acaulescent in habit - meaning they lack any noticeable stems and the foliage and flowers appear to rise from the ground; the remaining species have short stems with foliage and flowers produced in the axils of the leaves. The simple leaves of plants with either habit are arranged alternately; the acaulescent species produce basal rosettes. Plants always have leaves with stipules that are often leaf-like.

Opened seed capsule, showing the seeds
A viola cultivar showing the large round flowers and the novel coloration that has been achieved through breeding.

The flowers of the vast majority of the species are zygomorphic with bilateral symmetry. The flowers are formed from five petals; four are upswept or fan-shaped petals with two per side, and there is one broad, lobed lower petal pointing downward. The shape of the petals and placement defines many species, for example, some Viola species have a "spur" on the end of each petal while most have a spur on the lower petal.

Solitary flowers end long stalks with a pair of bracteoles. The flowers have 5 sepals that persist after blooming, and in some species the sepals enlarge after blooming. The flowers have five free stamens with short filaments that are oppressed against the ovary, only the lower two stamens have nectary spurs that are inserted on the lowest petal into the spur or a pouch. The flower styles are thickened near the top and the stigmas are head-like, narrowed or often beaked. The flowers have a superior ovary with one cell, which has three placentae, containing many ovules.

Viola flowers are most often spring blooming with chasmogamous flowers with well-developed petals pollinated by insects. Many species also produce self-pollinated cleistogamous flowers in summer and autumn that do not open and lack petals.[4] In some species the showy chasmogamous flowers are infertile (e.g.,Viola papilionacea).[5]

After flowering, fruit capsules are produced that split open by way of three valves.[6] On drying, the capsules may eject seeds with considerable force to distances of several meters.[7] The nutlike seeds have straight embryos, flat cotyledons, and soft fleshy endosperm that is oily.[8] The seeds of some species have elaiosomes and are dispersed by ants.[9]

Flower colours vary in the genus, ranging from violet, as their common name suggests, through various shades of blue, yellow, white, and cream, whilst some types are bicolored, often blue and yellow. Many cultivars and hybrids have been bred in a greater spectrum of colours. Flowering is often profuse, and may last for much of the spring and summer.

One quirk of some viola is the elusive scent of their flowers; along with terpenes, a major component of the scent is a ketone compound called ionone, which temporarily desensitises the receptors of the nose, thus preventing any further scent being detected from the flower until the nerves recover.

Selected species

White-and-purple form of Viola sororia

See List of Viola species for a more complete list.

Note: Neither Saintpaulia ("African violets") nor Erythronium dens-canis ("dogtooth violets") are related to the true Viola.

The genus includes dog violets, a group of scentless species which are the most common viola in many areas, sweet violet (Viola odorata) (named from its sweet scent), and many other species whose common name includes the word "violet". Several species are known as pansies, including the yellow pansy (Viola pedunculata) of the Pacific coast.

Common blue violet Viola sororia is the state flower of Wisconsin, Rhode Island, Illinois, and New Jersey.

Australia is home to a number of Viola species, including Viola hederacea, Viola betonicifolia and Viola banksii, first collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander on the Cook voyage to Botany Bay.

The modern garden pansy (V. × wittrockiana) is a plant of complex hybrid origin involving at least three species, V. tricolor (wild pansy or heartsease), V. altaica and V. lutea (mountain pansy).

Horticultural uses

Species and cultivars

Cultivars of Viola cornuta, Viola cucullata, Viola odorata, are commonly grown from seed. Other species often grown include Viola labradorica, Viola pedata and Viola rotundifolia.[10]

Bedding plants

The plants known to gardeners as "violas" are common bedding and pot plants world wide. In 2005 in the United States, violas (including pansies) were one of the top three bedding plant crops and 111 million dollars worth of flats of violas were produced for the bedding flower market.[11] Pansies and violas used for bedding are generally raised from seed, and F1 hybrid seed strains have been developed which produce compact plants of reasonably consistent flower colouring and appearance. Bedding plants are usually discarded after one growing season.

Perennial cultivars

Selection of cultivated Violas at the BBC Gardeners' World show, in June 2011.

There are hundreds of perennial viola and violetta cultivars; many of these do not "come true" from seed and therefore have to be propagated from cuttings. Violettas can be distinguished from violas by the lack of ray markings on their petals.[2] A few popular examples include:[12]

  • Viola 'Ardross Gem' (viola)
  • Viola 'Buttercup' (violetta)
  • Viola 'Columbine' (viola)
  • Viola 'Dawn' (violetta)
  • Viola 'Etain' (viola)
  • Viola 'Irish Molly' (viola)
  • Viola 'Jackanapes' (viola)
  • Viola 'Maggie Mott' (viola)
  • Viola 'Martin' (viola)
  • Viola 'Molly Sanderson' (viola)
  • Viola 'Rebecca' (violetta)
  • Viola 'Vita' (viola)
  • Viola 'Zoe' (violetta)
  • viola 'Blackjack'

Weed control

Not all violets are desired, and wild violets are considered weeds in North American lawns by some people. Others tolerate or welcome the presence of violets in lawns. Wild violets are regarded as a problem in shady fescue lawns in North America. Violets thrive in the part/full shade and are not susceptible to most herbicides used to kill common lawn weeds. Triclopyr, a weedkiller, has been found to be an effective method of controlling wild violets in fescue lawns.

Other uses


When newly opened, Viola flowers may be used to decorate salads or in stuffings for poultry or fish. Soufflés, cream and similar desserts can be flavoured with essence of Viola flowers. The young leaves are edible raw or cooked as a somewhat bland leaf vegetable. The flowers and leaves of the cultivar 'Rebecca', one of the Violetta violets, has a distinct vanilla flavor with hints of wintergreen.

A candied violet or crystallized violet is a flower, usually of Viola odorata, preserved by a coating of egg white and crystallised sugar. Alternatively, hot syrup is poured over the fresh flower (or the flower is immersed in the syrup) and stirred until the sugar recrystallizes and has dried. This method is still used for rose petals and was applied to orange flowers in the past (when almonds or orange peel are treated this way they are called pralines). Candied violets are still made commercially in Toulouse, France, where they are known as violettes de Toulouse. They are used as decorating or included in aromatic desserts.

The French are also known for their violet syrup, most commonly made from an extract of violets. In the United States, this French violet syrup is used to make violet scones and marshmallows.

Viola essence flavours the liqueurs Creme Yvette, Creme de Violette, and Parfait d'Amour. It is also used in Parma Violets confectionery.


The flowers, leaves and roots of various Viola species are used for medicinal purposes, being rich in vitamins A and C. They also contain a type of antioxidant called an anthocyanin. Viola flowers are also used to make an herbal tea that is used in Chinese herbal medicine. Most violas (all tested) and many plants of the Violaceae plant family contain cyclotides,[13][14][15] which have a diverse range of biological activities, including uterotonic, anti-HIV, antimicrobial, and insecticidal activities.[16]

Viola canescens, a species from from India, exhibited in vitro activity against Trypanosoma cruzi.[17]

Fourteen anthocyanins from V. yedoensis and V. prionantha have been identified. Some anthocyanins show strong antioxidant activities.[18]


Viola odorata is used as a source for scents in the perfume industry. Violet is known to have a 'flirty' scent as its fragrance comes and goes. Ionone is present in the flowers, which turns off the ability for humans to smell the fragrant compound for moments at a time.[19]

Uses by other species

Viola species are used as food plants by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species, including the Giant Leopard Moth, Large Yellow Underwing, Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing, High Brown Fritillary, Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Pearl-bordered fritillary and Setaceous Hebrew Character.



  1. ^ The pronunciation /vˈlə/ (vy-oh-lə) is the most common one in US English, but US dictionaries also record (less common) use of /viˈlə/ (vee-oh-lə) and /ˈv.ələ/ (vy-ə-lə): American Heritage Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Interestingly, the only pronunciation recorded by the Compact Oxford English Dictionary is /ˈvələ/ (vee-ə-lə) but the only pronunciation recorded by the Oxford Dictionaries Online is /ˈv.ələ/ (vy-ə-lə).
  2. ^ a b (Accessed 14 Oct 2008)
  3. ^ (Accessed 14 Oct 2008)
  4. ^ Walters, Dirk R., and David J. Keil. 1996. Vascular plant taxonomy. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Pub. Co. Page 332.
  5. ^ Violet, Common Blue - (‘’Viola papilionacea’’)
  6. ^ Cullen, J. 2001. Handbook of North European garden plants with keys to families and genera. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Page 345.
  7. ^ Rendle, Alfred B. 1967. The classification of plants. Vol. II: Dicotyledons. Cambridge at the University Press. (See page 208).
  8. ^ Cronquist, Arthur. 1981. An integrated system of classification of flowering plants. New York: Columbia University Press. Page 404.
  9. ^ Sanders, Jack. 2003. The secrets of wildflowers. Guilford, CT: The Globe Pequot Press. (See page 49).
  10. ^ Armitage, Allan M. (1989), Herbaceous perennial plants: a treatise on their identification, culture, and garden attributes, Athens, GA.: Varsity Press, Inc., pp. 600–606, ISBN 0-87563-810-4 
  11. ^
  12. ^ RHS Plant Finder 2008-2009, Dorling Kindersley (2008) ISBN 978-1-4053-3190-6 pp787–791
  13. ^ Tang J., Wang C.K., Pan X., Yan H., Zeng G., Xu W., He W., Daly N.L., Craik D.J., Tan N. "Isolation and characterization of cytotoxic cyclotides from Viola tricolor." Peptides 2010 31:8 (1434-1440)
  14. ^ Trabi M., Mylne J.S., Sando L., Craik D.J.,"Circular proteins from Melicytus (Violaceae) refine the conserved protein and gene architecture of cyclotides" Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry 2009 7:11 (2378-2388)
  15. ^ Gerlach S.L., Burman R., Bohlin L., Mondal D., Göransson U. "Isolation, characterization, and bioactivity of cyclotides from the micronesian plant psychotria leptothyrsa" Journal of Natural Products 2010 73:7 (1207-1213)
  16. ^ David J. Craik.,"Discovery and applications of the plant cyclotides" Toxicon Volume 56, Issue 7, 15 December 2010, Pages 1092-1102, doi:10.1016/j.toxicon.2010.02.021
  17. ^ Dua VK, Verma G, Agarwal DD, Kaiser M, Brun R.,"Antiprotozoal activities of traditional medicinal plants from the Garhwal region of North West Himalaya, India." J Ethnopharmacol. 2011 Apr 16;
  18. ^ Authors: Zhang J, Wang LS, Gao JM, Xu YJ, Li LF, Li CH.,"Rapid Separation and Identification of Anthocyanins from Flowers of Viola yedoensis and V. prionantha by High-performance Liquid Chromatography-Photodiode Array Detection-Electrospray Ionisation Mass Spectrometry." Phytochem Anal. 2011 Apr 26;
  19. ^ Ackerman, Diane. A natural history of the senses. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. Print.

External references

  1. ITIS (Accessed December 2, 2002)
  2. The Oxford Companion to Food, by Alan Davidson, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-211579-0
  3. Larousse Gastronomique, by Prosper Montagne (Ed.), Clarkson Potter, 2001. ISBN 0-609-60971-8

External links

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