A blooming party
 Let nature help with Carnival decorations by planting colorful pansies, violas _lowres

Photo by R. Stephanie Bruno -- Violas and pansies are the perfect floral greeting for Mardi Gras. They're available now at plant nurseries.

With their green leaves and colorful blooms in a variety of purple and gold hues, pansies and violas seem custom-designed for home garden displays at Carnival time. Both are readily available this time of year at plant nurseries and garden centers, as they are the ideal cool season bedding plants to add spark to a bed or container. They both bloom nonstop locally from late fall to early spring, though the advent of heat and humidity will do them in.

Both are members of the viola genus, which has more than 500 species under its umbrella. The best known are the Johnny-Jump-Ups (Viola tricolor), native to Europe where it grows as a wildflower. With petals of purple or blue and white and a “throat” of yellow, its nickel-size blooms are distinguished by markings sometimes referred to as “whiskers.” Each dainty blossom has five petals — three that point up and two that point down.

The wildflower was brought to North America from Europe in the 18th century, and according to the National Garden Bureau, Thomas Jefferson wrote that he planted it at Shadwell, his birthplace in 1767.

Garden violas are low growing (no more than 8 inches) and have a spreading habit.

The pansy is a descendant of the viola, a hybrid bred for its larger bloom (as big as 3 inches across) in the 19th century in England. Like the viola, the pansy also has five petals but the configuration of the petals differs: On the pansy, four petals point upward and just one points down. Another distinguishing feature of the pansy is its “eye,” sometimes called a “blotch.” Garden pansies can grow to 12 inches tall.

When distinguishing between a viola and a pansy, John Snocken, of Great Britain’s National Viola and Pansy Society wrote, “We try and keep things simple. Thus, we say that a ‘Pansy’ must have a blotch — that is, a consolidation of the rays that forms the dark velvety face of the bloom. The ‘Viola,’ on the other hand, may have some rays, but these should not be so thick as to form a blotch. Unfortunately, the commercial world does not see it this way so they produce many pansies without a blotch. This all adds to confusion.”

Over the millennia, the viola genus has gained a reputation for being the source of healing compounds used or medicinal purposes. Moreover, the flowers of garden pansies and violas are said to be high in vitamins A and C. Adding them to a salad (yes, they’re edible) adds color and piquancy.

It is far too late in the season to start violas and pansies from seed, so a plant nursery or garden center is the best bet if a cheery pot of purple and gold violas or pansies is desired for a Carnival tableau at home.

Look for plants with healthy green (not yellowed) foliage and many buds. Don’t be afraid to pop a cell out of a six-pack to check the roots — they should be white rather than brown. Go ahead and plant the plugs no more than 6 inches apart in the chosen container to create a full to overflowing look immediately, as there isn’t a lot of time between now and Mardi Gras for the plants to grow larger and fill in the empty spots. Keep the soil moist but well-drained and place the pots where they get plenty of sunshine.

Come Ash Wednesday, the parades will be over, but it’s likely the pansies and violas will still be going strong. To keep them looking their best, prolong blooming and prevent a gangly growth habit, be sure to dead-head often by pinching off faded flowers between the thumb and forefinger.

R. Stephanie Bruno writes about homes and gardens. Contact her at rstephaniebruno@gmail.com.