Mother's Day Violas
Updated: Mar 28
One Mother’s Day many years ago, my oldest, young son snuck across our rural road to a small greenhouse business that no longer exists. He surprised me with a hanging basket containing plants covered with tricolored, five-petaled flowers. The tag told me they were violas. I hung the container on a shepherd’s crook outside my kitchen window where I could admire the flowers often.
At the time I was an inexperienced gardener and didn’t know those flowers would self-seed—vigorously. The shepherd’s crook was tall, the container rocked when the wind blew, and seeds spread near and far. The following year I had little flowers sprouting up all over the place.
The original plant flowered in mostly dark purple, with some pale purple and yellow. Year after year they cross-pollinated with others I eventually planted, and now their tricolored blooms encompass more shades and combinations of colors than I can describe.
When the snow melts in March, a few of their cheery little faces beam up at me. From April through May, it’s an exhilarating site when these low-growing flowers expand and blanket my garden, forming a sea of color surrounding the islands of rising spring bulbs—hyacinths, daffodils and tulips. The view from my windows lures me out into the spring garden when I should be doing housework.
The cheerful-faced flowers, still profuse and colorful, fill in the garden and camouflage the yellowing foliage of tulips and daffodils into June.
Although the tricolored flowers love the sun in cooler weather, when the
direct sun of July arrives, they begin to look ratty. Their stems grow leggy and they topple over and their leaves
turn brown and dry at the bottom. Although some flowers remain at the tips, I have learned over the years that at times a gardener must be ruthless. I pull up most of them to make way for the summer blooming perennials. Some years in particular this is time consuming because there are so many of them. However the process of pulling them shakes many little seeds loose.
Those seeds germinate and turn into seedlings. The other thickly growing summer flowers protect the tender new plants from the sun, and they thrive.
When September comes, I cut down the perennials that have finished blooming. With the cooler sunshine now reaching the developing plants underneath, those new plants that grew from the fallen seeds get big enough to bloom. By November when almost everything else has long since stopped flowering, they are still looking good. Frosty days and nights don’t bother them!
They are late autumn stars in the garden until the deep snows in my snowbelt region of New York State, south of Lake Ontario, buries them. When that snow melts in the January thaw, some are still blooming, only to be covered again. In early spring the cycle starts over again.
Viola is the umbrella term for the related group of flowers that include wild blue violets, Jonny-jump-ups, and pansies. Those three flowers are botanically known as Viola sororia, Viola tricolor, and Viola x wittrockiana. It all gets very complicated as the Viola genus contains over 500 species, and more are added every year with hybridization. The ones in my gardens are usually larger than the small Jonny-jump-ups I’ve seen, and smaller and much easier to grow than hybrid pansies.
Many people use the term pansies and violas interchangeably. Pansy is derived from the French pensee, which translates as thought. Pansies are said to bring thoughts of loved ones, and it is true of my Violas. The many popping up in my gardens all year, every year, bring back fond memories of my now grown-up son when he was a little boy.
The flowers often turn up in unexpected places—in the cracks between the pavers of my patio, in the middle of a garden walk, in the vegetable garden, and even in the lawn. My son was very active and also often popped up in unexpected places—on top of the refrigerator, in the neighbor’s pond in March, on the roof. He and those flowers are forever intertwined in my mind. He picked out a perfect Mother’s Day gift.