National Viola and Pansy Society Newsletter Autumn/Winter 1999

The Violettas

I have re-produced H.H. Crane's article from 1960. With his father D.B. Crane he did much to improve the strain. violetta Buttercup 'Buttercup' still exists, although I have seen some plants thus labeled that clearly are not.

Morris May lists a most comprehensive collection at

Planta Vera
Lynne Hill Nursery,
Telephone: 01932 563011

[While the above was true when the article was written, I believe Morris May is no longer offering violas for sale]

On a personal note I would not be without 'Rebecca' Rebecca' , which I believe arose as a sport from 'Blue Boy' with Richard Cawthorne

The Violettas Howard H. Crane, F.L.S.

What are Violettas? Most growers of hardy plants know, vaguely possibly, that they are some kind or strain of small violas or pansies, but are at a loss to give any more precise definition. With the difficult conditions that have existed over the past few decades this is perhaps hardly surprising; but before the turn of the century and for some years after they were popular little garden plants grown and distributed by some well-known nurseries of the day. Unfortunately the exigencies of World War I resulted in the loss of many varieties and a great deal of stock of these charming little pansies; but, in the years following, work on them was started afresh and they were again beginning to be recognized as valuable additions to the flower garden. With the advent of World War II they once more suffered a serious setback, and had it not been for the efforts of a few enthusiasts it is not unlikely that the strain would have been lost to cultivation, as has happened with not a few other garden plants.

In order properly to consider the plants and flowers known as Violettas it will be expedient, if not necessary, first of all to refer briefly to the development of pansies and violas as they are known today.

Although it seems evident that the heartsease (Viola tricolor ) and the yellow mountain pansy (V. lutea ) had been grown in gardens from the sixteenth century, it was apparently not until early in the nineteenth century circa 1810-13 that systematic work was begun in the selection and cultivation of good forms of V. tricolor and subsequently other species. Progress in the raising and selection of improved forms seems to have been fairly rapid and within the next twenty years or so large numbers of plants with interesting and colourful flowers were raised. For instance in the Floricultural Cabinet, published in 1833, there are coloured illustrations of some of those which were highly thought of at the same time. Between the years 1835 and 1838 there was issued in twenty-four parts a publication with the somewhat lengthy title A History and Description of the Different Varieties of the Pansey (sic) or Heartsease now in Cultivation in the British Gardens. Hand-coloured lithographic plates are an interesting feature of this publication.

As time went on, the blossoms of these cultivated pansies, to achieve merit in the eyes of the plantsmen of the day, had to conform to certain fixed standards of shape and markings; what subsequently became known as Show Pansies were thus developed. Very briefly the flowers of Show Pansies had to be of circular shape, mainly self colours but sometimes margined with a darker tint, with small dense markings in the centre of the flower on the three lower petals. There are very few named varieties of Show Pansies grown nowadays and these mainly north of the Border. In many a cottage garden throughout the country, however, blossoms of pansies indicating Show Pansy influence are still to be seen.

Now these fixed standards, with the somewhat limited colour range allowed, did not suit or please everybody. The interest of continental growers had already been aroused and so began the development of strains and varieties of brilliant colouring as opposed to the more restrained colours and markings of the Show Pansies. Growers both here and on the Continent went all out for brightness and resplendence in colour. As time went on there were evolved varieties with large velvety flowers, good specimens or types of which in their turn had to conform to certain recognized standards; in due course they became known as Fancy Pansies. A good type of Fancy Pansy is readily distinguished by the large dense "blotch" of deep colour which almost covers the three lower petals, leaving a broad belt of a lighter colour on the margins. The blossom should be circular, of good proportions, with petals of stout substance and texture lying as flat as possible, the top edge of the bottom petal being horizontal. A limited number of named varieties of Fancy Pansies vegetatively propagated of course are still grown in Scotland and the North. There are some good types of Fancy Pansy, too, grown from seed and treated as annuals or biennials. Many firms, both in this country and on the Continent, have their own special strains; the beds in which the seed parents are grown are carefully rogued in order that the strains may be kept true to type. A few years ago in the Wisley Gardens there was a trial of pansies grown from seed; it evoked a deal of interest.

Whilst the work of developing Fancy Pansies was going on a small band of enthusiasts was busy trying not only to increase the colour range of the Show Pansies but also to raise plants with a neat habit of growth and of free-flowering character. With such objects in view these workers hybridized existing varieties of Show Pansies or bedding pansies as they were evidently sometimes called with species such as Viola cornuta , V. altaica, V. amoena and others. Numbers of interesting seedlings were the outcome, some being free of markings in the centre of the blossom and apparently most of a relatively tufted habit of growth. Many well-known gardeners of the time, both amateur and professional, were interested in this work. James Grieve, who raised the apple named after him, was one. Eventually these new types of pansy became known alternatively either as Tufted Pansies or Violas, the latter description taking the generic name Viola apparently because they were in the first instance derived from certain species of the genus; but this is not certain. William Robinson always referred to them as Tufted Pansies in forthright manner in the English Flower Garden and his other publications. Although his efforts did not meet with unqualified success the term Tufted Pansies was in common use up to the first decade of the present century; it is but little used nowadays.

So great was the interest aroused by these new Tufted Pansies or Violas that conferences were held in 1894, 1895 and 1896, the first two at the Botanical Gardens, Birmingham, and the last one at the Botanic Gardens, Regent's Park. As one writer of the time put it: "A great wave of popularity for the Viola is passing over the country". He was certainly right, for they were grown in gardens, large and small, throughout the land where soil conditions made their culture at all possible. As many of the older generation will remember, up to the time of World War I and for some years afterwards they were planted extensively in beds and borders of private gardens and public parks en masse for colour effect, and great was their popularity. These were the days of named varieties; they had to be good, too, and were far in advance in every way of the kind of flower usually obtained from a packet of mixed seed nowadays. There are still some of these older bedding varieties in cultivation and distributed by nurserymen, particularly in the North. A few are 'Admiral of the Blue', 'Mrs. Chichester' , 'Maggie Mott', 'Pickering Blue', 'Primrose Dame' and 'White Swan' . Nowadays a number of firms, both here and on the Continent, grow their own special strains of characteristic markings and tints which they distribute to be grown from seed. Regular roguing is essential in order that the particular strain may keep its distinctive character.

And so we come to the Violettas. Amongst those interested in the 'seventies in the raising of new types of pansy with a tufted habit and a free-flowering propensity was a certain Dr Charles Stuart, of Chirnside, Berwickshire. Many beautiful Tufted Pansies or Violas came from his garden and were being distributed up to the first few years of this century and at least one is still catalogued. Some of these I remember from my boyhood days as he and my father corresponded and apparently exchanged plants. Dr Stuart was emphatic in stating that in order to breed compact and close-growing varieties the cross should be made with V. cornuta as the seed-bearer. Because of Dr Stuart's work in raising new types of Tufted Pansies or Violas the name V. x stuartii was proposed in 1939 as a group name or collective designation for all the hybrids derived from V. cornuta crossed with the garden pansy (V. x wittrockiana); but an earlier name for the same group is V. x williamsii Wittrock (1897).

In a letter to the late William Cuthbertson, then of the firm of Dobbies, Dr Stuart put on record that in 1874 he "took pollen from a garden pansy named 'Blue King', a bedding variety then in fashion, and applied it to the pistil of Viola cornuta, a Pyrenean species. There was a podful of seed which produced twelve plants, which were well taken care of. The next season they flowered and were all blue in colour, but with a good tufted habit. I again took the pollen from a pink garden pansy and fertilized the flowers of my first cross, with a limited success. The seed from this cross gave me more variety in colour of flower, and the same tufted habit of growth, which evidently came from the Viola cornuta influence. The best of this cross were propagated and grown, some of the plants being sent to The Royal Horticultural Society's Gardens at Chiswick for trial." Dr Stuart was informed that they were entirely different in growth from all the others sent in. In the autumn of 1875 he was told that six first-class certificates had been awarded. Nothing more was done at this time beyond growing the plants already raised and sowing the seed from them and it was over twelve years before the first Violetta came on the scene. To quote again from Dr. Stuart: "In the year of the Queen's Jubilee, while walking round the seed-bed I saw what I had been seeking for, a pure white rayless Self. The plant was there and then pulled to pieces and every bit propagated. It was a warm summer night, and the perfume of the blooms at once attracted my attention. The next season I had a little plantation of the rayless Self and a wealth of blooms. A box of them was sent to Mr. Robinson the Editor of The Garden, who at once recognised a new strain." Dr Stuart named his seedling 'Violetta'. This, and subsequent seedlings of Dr Stuart's, William Robinson popularized in his publications, such as The Garden, Gardening Illustrated and Flora and Silva. Gertrude Jeckyll also became interested in them. 'Violetta' itself is a dainty flower, about 1 inch across and 1 inches from top to bottom, of pure white with the bottom petal heavily suffused creamy yellow; the petals are of stout substance.

At the Viola Conference of 1894, previously referred to, a paper by Mr George Steele was read on The Violetta, or Miniature Varieties. Rules were then drawn up defining the "properties", as they were called, or characteristics of the kind of flower and plant that a Violetta should possess. Concisely they are as follows: "the shape of the flowers to be circular, or narrow and oval, with the petals smooth and of good substance; the colour to be bright and clear with no central ray or marking; the flowers to be highly perfumed; the size not to exceed 1 inches in diameter; the habit to be dwarf and procumbent, foliage small, joints short, habit bushy with blossoms held erect on their footstalks. The older Violettas that I remember were about 1 inch by 1 inches but some were circular, about 1 inches across. At least one of Dr Stuart's own violettas is still catalogued i.e. 'Queen of the Year', china-blue flecked white; 'Lyric', lilac marbled lavender, is I think, another. The original 'Violetta' was still available two or three years ago.

My father, the late D.B. Crane, raised many charming varieties of Violettas and corresponded with William Robinson about them; in 1908 The Garden published a delightful colour plate of some half a dozen. I look back with pleasure and a certain amount of pride to the pricking out of hundreds of seedlings in our garden at Highgate in the years prior to 1914. My father carried on with the work and many interesting varieties were the outcome, some of which were exhibited at Vincent Square from time to time. Rooted cuttings of one, which made a chubby little plant during the season, I gave to a well-known plantsman; he changed the name to Violetta Buttercup 'Buttercup' and distributed it all over the country! It has deep orange yellow blossoms freely borne and is still catalogued today. It was on a table rock-garden stand at Chelsea a few years back. The firm of Dobbies acquired the stock of several varieties and at the Chelsea Show of 1938 planted up a charming formal garden with masses of plants in several distinct masses of colour.

In subsequent years it has been my pleasure to carry on with the cultivation of Violetta and the preservation of the strain. A few have been distributed through trade channels. 'Duchess' (Fig 93), a yellow margined lavender, and 'Tom Tit', deep mauve blue are two interesting kinds.

As with their relatives pansies and violas, due to the structure of the flower, Violettas do not come true from seed so that in order to perpetuate any particularly attractive seedling vegetative propagation by cuttings or division of roots is essential. Nowadays it seems that, with few exceptions, nurserymen do not find it an economic proposition to distribute plants of named varieties of the pansy family, propagated from cuttings, as was the practice years ago. It is a pity. Nevertheless, provided the seed parents have been carefully selected from a bed of seedlings by knowledgeable plantsmen who really know what to discard and are prepared to do so the progeny from seed should be reasonably true to type and strain.

It must be emphasized that with Violettas grown from seed thorough roguing is essential if good results are to be expected; only in this way and the strain be kept true to type. It would be a pity if through failure to do this work efficiently the strain were lost. The same applies, of course, to strains of many other good garden plants grown from seed.

One of the charms of the Violettas is the delightful fragrance of the flowers. The scent from masses of blossoms, freely borne on each plant, pervades the morning air in spring and summer, and on warm evenings the perfume is likewise all-pervading.

There have been several types of small pansy raised over the years, some of which are hybrids of V. cornuta, but attractive as they may be this is not to say that they are Violettas; nor can they be classified as such, although sometimes so designated. There are, too, various forms of V. cornuta and also V. gracilis which partake both in shape of flower and habit of growth of these two species; they are not Violettas.

Because of the influence of V. cornuta in their make-up, Violettas may be regarded as alpines in character. Plants remaining in their flowering quarters for more than one season make charming circular-shaped even tufts of foliage in the spring; from these arise blossoms of delightful fragrance poised erect on dainty footstalks. They can be planted in the rock-garden where they can be relied on to give a good account of themselves after most of the other permanent occupants have come to the end of their flowering season. Indeed, within the last decade there have been a few colonies of Violettas in the small rock-garden at Wilsey where they attracted considerable attention.

If our present-day rock-garden pundits could be persuaded to grow some of these Violettas I venture to suggest their culture would prove interesting and attractive.

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