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Classification of the

Cultivated forms of the genus Viola.

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A family of about 800 species in 17 genera of annual or perennial herbs, shrubs or sub-shrubs, rarely trees, that are distributed throughout all areas of the world, with the exception of the arctic regions.  The leaves are alternate, usually simple and stipulate. Flowers are hermaphrodite and perfect, regular or usually zygomorphic. There are 5 sepals, which are persistent. 5 Petals, with the front petal often spurred to form a nectary. 5 Stamens, which are alternate with the petals, with short filaments: the anthers are introrse and connective often prolonged beyond the anthers into a membranous wing. The ovary is superior, with 3 carpels, it is 1 celled with many ovules on 3 parietal placentae. The fruit is a capsule or berry that is three sided and dehiscing, often explosively, the seeds are numerous and occasionally winged, some times with a caruncle.


The genus Viola, contains approximately 400 species, with many sub-species and varieties.  Annual or perennial herbs and a few sub-shrubs of this genus are widely distributed over both the Northern and Southern temperate zones.  There are also a handful of shrubby species in the Andes, Sandwich Island and in Eastern Europe.  The species within the genus have diverse habit.  Stemless species produce their leaves and peduncles directly from the tip of the rhizome or root-stock.  Stemmed species have evident stems with longer internodes and peduncles arising from the axils of the stem-leaves.  Leaf form is extremely variable, with most exhibiting a rough heart or kidney shape.  However, some species have lanceolate leaves and others leaves that are deeply cut or divided into various forms.  Stipules are persistent and often very large.  Sometimes the stipules are as long as the leaf-blade.  In some species from the Andes, they are very small or hidden within the axil of the leaves.  The petioles are often long.  The flowers are of two kinds; open showy chasmogamous flowers with well-developed petals, or the permanently closed cleistagamous flowers that are typically produced later in the summer.  The chasmogamous flowers have 5 unequal sepals, 5 irregular petals, usually with the lower one extended back to form a pouch or spur, which is variable in length. There are 5 stamens, the lower two usually have a nectar producing appendage, which fits into the spur. The ovary is superior, either hairy or glabrous, with a style that is club-shaped and curved, either quite distinctly or only slightly. The fruit or seed capsule is a three sided boat shape that stands upright or lies on the ground before dehiscing or splitting along its length to eject the seed, sometimes with great force. Some species produce seed which posses an elaiosome or oil bearing body at one end of the seed, which makes them attractive to ants.

The genus is split into a number of sections and groups, all of which are important in their own way to the violet enthusiast, though the two main sections for horticulturalists are the Section Nominium which contains the true violets, and the Section Melanium which is where the garden pansies, viola, violetta and cornuta hybrids originate.

This registry does not attempt to catalog the "Natural" species, but rather concentrates on "Cultivars".  Information on some the "Natural" species can be found in The American Violet Society's Dichotomous Key To The Viola Of Pennsylvania or other sources.

Cultivars are plants that can be reproduced by seed or vegetative reproduction.  They are the result of intentional hybridization or selection of genetic mutations (sports) of parent plants.  The Cultivars of Viola fall into 2 classes( Violets and Melanium).

(A)   Section Violets frequently referred to as Viola

The cultivars in this section are developments from “Quatre Saisons” violets and the “Russian” violets, and are collectively termed 'Sweet Violets'.

(A1)   Single Violets

There are four generic types (a, b, c, d) of “Single Violets”.

(A1a) Heirloom Sweet Violets 

The cultivars in this section are developments from “Quatre Saisons” violets and the “Russian” violets, and are collectively termed 'Sweet Violets'.

(A1b) Governor Herrick Type

These are single flowered violets, derived from V. cucullata and crossed with the large-flowered forms of the single violet.  They are unscented and have a distinctive appearance, as well as a renowned resistance to pests and disease.

(A1c) Cultivars and Hybrids of Viola sororia

These are single flowered violets, derived from V. sororia .

(A1d) Miscellaneous Violet Cultivars

These are relatively new developments from various species within the section Viola.

(A2)  Semi-Double Violets

A development from the single ‘Sweet Violet’, with large, rounded outer petals, presenting a central rosette that is usually of a different colour or combination of colours.

(A3)  Double Violets

A natural development from the single flowered 'Sweet Violet', with full, double flowers

(A4)  Parma Violets

Distinct from all other violets in both the double and occasional single forms, and usually identified by their more compact habit, with smaller, pointed glossy leaves and subtle spicy perfume. Unlike other forms of the violet, these cultivars are not hardy.


(B)  Section Melanium

The Melanium section of the Viola genus contains four (B1, B2, B3, B4) groups.  All are derived from hybridization processes, originating in an ancestral parent ???V. need_this_data.

(B1)   Pansies

With its genetic roots firmly placed in V. tricolour, the pansy has been developed by rigorous selection and cross pollinating to the larger, rounded flower with characteristic blotch. Even so the characteristics of its diminutive ancestry are only too ready to come to the fore. Before the early nineteenth century there had been no attempt to improve on the species. But in less than twenty five years, nurserymen were vying with each other to offer ever more spectacular sorts. The florists took it up as a flower that could be brought to perfection for the show bench, while at the same time free from such artificial restraints they were developed as a garden plant, a little lax in habit. That has been improved upon, especially during the twentieth century when colour ranges were also extended. The Fancy Pansy and the Show Pansy both for exhibition, were for a long time considered as the high point of the hybridisers art. But these have suffered a steep decline in popularity during the latter part of the twentieth century, both sorts being on the verge of extinction. The pansy remains one of the most popular garden plants for its ability to produce blocks of colour early in the gardening year.

(B1a) Early Pansies

The pansy, developed before 1841, is identified by the fact that the raying is still present in some form although some cultivars display a thickening or consolidation of the rays, which eventually developed into the familiar blotch.

(B1b) Fancy Pansies

A flower that is large, fresh, clean, circular in outline, with smooth, thick, velvety petals -- without serration--, lying evenly on each other, either flat or slightly reflexed so that the surface of the flower is still convex. The centre petals must meet above the eye, reach well up on the top petals, and a bottom petal sufficiently deep and broad to balance the others. The blotch must be large and solid, rounded and well defined. The cultivars in this section must be more than 63 mm in diameter.

(B1c) Show Pansies

A flower that is between 38 – 50 mm in diameter, fresh and clean, with the same form, build, texture and eye as a Fancy Pansy. Bi-coloured flowers must have a ground colour, throughout, of the same shade with circular, broad, of uniform colour and well defined at the edges. The belting (margin) must be uniform in width and exactly the same colour as the top petals, that is, distinct from the ground colour. It should also have a good-sized blotch --smaller than in the Fancy Pansies--, dense, solid and approximately circular. 

(B1d) Bedding Pansies

The cultivars in this section are usually commercial, seed-raised varieties.

(B2)   Violas

During the middle years of the nineteenth century a number of horticulturalists attempted to improve the habit of existing varieties of pansy, in order to produce a plant with a better habit of growth and increased flower production that would be more suitable for growing freely in the garden. The most commonly used species was V. cornuta. A good number of raisers did succeed in producing such plants. It was noticeable that the flowers had a strong and sweet scent, and were devoid of the blotch that was demanded by the florists as a mark of the true Pansy. There was a great attempt, noticeably by the likes of William Robinson, to name the group Tufted Pansies, but this name would simply not be taken up by the public, thus we had Violas. This name has come to be the cause of much confusion, most noticeably the old question what is the difference between a viola and a pansy? The garden violas are almost totally devoid of the consolidation of rays that form the blotch, although there are a number of varieties that are on the borderline. There are rayed varieties and non-rayed varieties, with a range of colours and markings.

(B2a)  Bedding Violas

A flower that is clean, of good substance, circular or oval in form, without any trace of a blotch, and with an eye that is well defined, circular and bright yellow or orange

(B2a1)  Heirloom Violas

Violas that are NOT generally available from commercial suppliers, but which are commonly found in historical collections or which have escaped from cultivation.

(B2a2)  Commercial Viola Strains

Violas that are generally available from commercial suppliers, either as seed, or as ready grown plants, intended as annual bedding varieties.

(B2b)  Exhibition Violas

A flower that is of the form, build and texture outlined for Fancy Pansies. While the colour may be selfs, striped, mottled, suffused or belted (margined), there can be no semblance of a blotch or rays. The eye must be bright, solid, circular and well defined. The cultivars in this section are all over 65mm in diameter.

(B3)   Violettas

Violettas are a miniature form of Viola with sufficiently distinct attributes to set them apart as a special type. They originated with Dr Charles Stuart in the late nineteenth century, being the result of a breeding programme that used V. cornuta as the seed parent and a variety of violas as the pollen parents. After a number of years he had produced a race of plants that were dwarf and procumbent. The blooms were oval in shape, slightly wavy at the edges and totally devoid of any rays. The flowers were also noticeable for being highly fragrant. They continued to be developed in the early twentieth century notably by D.B. and H.H. Crane, however their popularity had waned considerably by the later years of the century. A large number of the varieties that remain available were raised by the late R.G.Cawthorne

The petals should be smooth and of good substance; the colour bright and clear, and they may be striped, margined or bi-coloured. The eye should be bright yellow or orange, and there should be no semblance of rays or a blotch. The flower should have a distinct fragrance, present an oval shape and measure no more than 37.5mm and no less than 25mm in width. The habit should be dwarf and pro-cumbent.

(B4) Cornuta Hybrids

     The species V. cornuta, originated in the Pyrenees.  V. cornuta was used by hybridisers in the nineteenth century because it so easily passed on its vigour and tufted habit to its progeny. The petals are somewhat long and angular and are freely borne on long stems. A good deal of work was done, especially in the latter part of the twentieth century to improve the range and depth of colour. The late R.G. Cawthorne was the raiser of many of the varieties that are currently in cultivation

These cultivars are the result of crosses with V. cornuta and other species within the section Melanium, producing the distinctive ‘windmill’ shape of the flowers. With a bushy growth habit they should resemble the species as much as possible, allowing for variations in the blooms’ size and colour.


[1]Footnote for Gleason & Chronquist

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Web-Presentation © 2003 Gary W. Sherwin, The American Violet Society

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