Viola tricolor is one of the oldest cultivated plants. We see it in Medieval manuscripts and old herbals, including Gerard’s Great Herbal of 1596. In Europe it is a common plant of woods, meadows and hedgerows and is known by several names among the country folk: “hearts-ease,” “love-in-idleness,” “cat’s face,” “call-me-to-you,” “herb trinitas,” “three-faces-under-a-hood,” “jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me,” and “johnny-jump-up.” The species name “tricolor” refers to the white, purple and yellow of the small blooms. The photo above shows a rather pale-colored flower of the true wild form from England. The name “pansie” or “pansy” is derived from the French pensee, which means “thoughts.” What we think of now as pansies are hybrids of Viola tricolor and Viola lutea developed in the 1830s and I will discuss their origin in more detail in a later post.
As recent as one hundred years ago several named varieties of Viola tricolor were available. Bright modern seeds strains can be found, but only one old variety still exists, ‘Bowles’ Black Viola.’ It comes true from seed and is a very dark purple, almost a true black, with a tiny golden eye.
Viola tricolor plants do well in part shade in a moderately rich, moist soil containing organic matter. They bloom best in cool weather and a site with morning sun seems ideal. A good way to have these delicate flowers in abundance is to start them from seed in late summer to bloom in spring, or sow indoors in winter to set out in spring. Seeds can be direct sown in fall to come up in the spring. In climates with mild winters violas and pansies are often planted for winter flowers and removed when it gets hot.