Update September 2009: They did not live through the Texas summer. Seems like they’d need to be watered daily to survive.
On a trip to Scotland this summer, I was walking by a small cornershop florist in a small village, and in front a lone pot of violas was blooming, labeled “Etain”. I leaned in to smell and was surprised; it was nothing like pansies or annual violas, which often have no fragrance. I had to have one. I almost considered buying it and trying to hide it somewhere in my suitcase home. So you can imagine my excitement when, on a trip to Home Depot to buy house paint, I happened to come across these in the nursery. Just six of them, and I took four.
In October and November, our nurseries start filling up with winter annuals, or perennials that bloom through winter and take a break in summer. The most common sights are Dianthus annuals (which can actually live and bloom for more than a year here), Violas and Pansies, Cyclamen (which can be grown indoors or out), Snapdragons and Alyssum. In many cooler climates, most of those annuals are grown for spring and even summer blooming, so this can lead to rather inept descriptions for Texas like the label on these Home Depot violas, which told me needs “Sol/Sun” and “Blooms spring to fall”. I highly doubt that I will see them bloom in summer here and know that they would not survive a day in summer full sun.
Despite them also being in the annuals section, these violas are actually perennial.
‘Etain’ is from a group of perennial Violas called English Violets, Tufted Violets or Horned Violets, hybrids of Viola cornuta. Highly popular in England and Europe, unique varieties of these hybrids are difficult to find, and quite different from the annuals we see in our nurseries. ‘Etain’ seems like one of the favorites. It’s gentle, lemon-yellow flowers with a picotee purple edge seemed so different than the often garish colors of pansies we see around here. Other varieties I’ve seen in some catalogs are ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Magic’, but one look at the Royal Horticultural Society’s web database, I realized my English friends have a lot more to choose from.
My interest in violas first started with Sweet Violets, Viola odorata, and this sent me on a quest to learn more about the Viola family. There are about 450 species in the genus Viola, and several are fragrant, the most potent of which are the Sweet Violets, but the “Tufted Violets” like ‘Etain’ are highly scented as well, albeit a softer floral.
The Violas and Pansies that dominate the nurseries in fall are very hardy annuals, popular because they bloom nearly nonstop November to May, and don’t need to be deadheaded or encouraged much. The smaller Violas are hybrids of Viola tricolor, a wildflower from the Pyrenees which is commonly called Johnny Jump-up, and which occasionally have fragrance. (These are often confused with Viola cornuta, but cornuta is more of a perennial.) Pansies (Viola x wittrockiana), the big colorful guys you see in common winter landscapes all over town, are hybrids of at least three different species bred to have larger flowers and various whiskers, markings and shades from brash orange to even black.
I tend to like the more petite annual Violas than the Pansies, but am glad to find there are more options in the viola family and especially fragrant kinds. I suspect that “Etain”, which is blooming now in its container, will bloom on and off through winter and have its greatest show in early spring. But summer may be the trickier part. If an expert grower of English Violets has to nurse them through a Spokane, Washington summer, then I will certainly have to nurse them through mine. Which is why I can’t imagine putting them anywhere near full sun. Perfect for my front bed which is dappled sun in winter and mostly shaded in summer.
More information on violets can be found at the American Violet Society’s website. There are many native Viola species in the U.S. worth trying in our gardens. Some information on them can be found in this recent issue of Wildflower Magazine.
Update: March 22, 2009. My Etain violas have spread out since the winter and are still in full bloom. They’ve bloomed the most this month, even though we have had a lot of weather in the high 80s. Another few plants that I tried in full sun were not as happy and have spread rather slowly.