Violets: Favored Floral Emblem of Four States

Violets: Favored Floral Emblem of Four States

by Naomi Mathews (Lanao2(at)

Violets captured official floral emblem titles in four of America's eastern states, with Illinois leading the way almost one-hundred years ago. Historically, the incentive for adopting state flowers was inspired when the 1893 World's Fair was held in Chicago. Although the purple iris was one of the flowers suggested as Illinois' floral emblem that year, it was never officially adopted. &nbsp

As time passed, it was Mrs. James C. Fessler living in Rochelle who ultimately initiated a statewide campaign to adopt a state flower. As a result of her efforts, the Viola sororia was adopted on January 21, 1908 as Illinois' official floral emblem. Interestingly, this species, also known as the common woolly blue violet, is said to grow in all 120 counties in Illinois.

As was common in many states in those bygone days, school children were invited to vote for their favorite state flowers. In Wisconsin, they voted first in 1908 and again in 1909. The four floral finalists in 1908 included the white water lily, the trailing arbitus, the wild rose, and the violet. When the final vote was tallied on Arbor Day in 1909, the violet won the coveted title -- unofficially! It wasn't until 1948 that the Youth Committee of the Wisconsin Centennial Commission learned that the violet had never been officially adopted. This matter was soon rectified, and on June 4, 1949, the wood violet, also known as the common blue violet, was adopted as Wisconsin's state flower.

violaAlthough Rhode Island was the first state to choose the violet as their favorite, it was the last state to make it official. Once again, school children were asked to vote for their favorites of ten finalists. In spite of their overwhelming vote for the violet on Arbor Day in 1897, their favorite flower wasn't officially adopted. Finally, more than seventy years later, a bill was introduced and adopted on March 11, 1968, naming the bird foot violet (Viola pedata) as Rhode Island's "pet" flower!

Last but not least, it was in 1971 when New Jersey finally adopted the purple violet, Viola sororia, as their official state flower. This bill superseded a bill passed in 1913, as it was claimed by some that the 1913 bill had not been legal. New Jersey and Illinois continue to share the same species of the charming Viola sororia as their state floral emblems.

What is very obvious is that several species of the charming purple violet are cherished, especially by the folks in these four eastern states. Little did any of them realize that so many different hybrids of their beloved state flower would evolve in the years to come!


At times, certain species (or classifications) of flowers and their next of kin can be downright confusing to a gardener, for many grow what I loosely call "clones" of each other. Yes, I know . . . the proper botanical term for a plant's offspring is really a "hybrid." And, botanically speaking, the family to which different species and their hybrids belong is known as their "genus." Still, all of this plant genealogy can be a bit mind-boggling!

And so it is with violas, violets, AND pansies, for all are members of the genus Viola. The old saying that ". . . variety is the spice of life" certainly does apply to these miniature flowers, especially since so many diverse hybrids have evolved.

First, there are the violas!

There are a host of beautiful violas in the genus Viola . Violas are low- growing perennials often treated as biennials or annuals, depending on the climate in which they are grown. They don't grow much taller than 6 to 8 inches and bear small flowers about 1-1/2 inches across. Their cheerful flowers are flat-faced sporting two side petals, two upper petals, and one slender spurred petal.

One of the most popular violas is the Johnny-Jump-Up (V. tricolor), noted for it's bright purple and yellow petals and resembling miniature pansies. This cheerful little viola is an annual in all USDA zones, and can be seen blooming in early spring in many gardens. Johnny-Jump-Ups prefer sun or light shade and grow best in fertile, moist soil.

Many gardeners enjoy planting violas in windowboxes, cedar deck planters, wooden half barrels, and a host of other containers. Violas can also be planted in a variety of windowsill containers for early spring color indoors. They are also ideal for planting in masses for a burst of bold colors, and are very showy as borders or edgings along flowerbeds.

Violas come in a range of lovely solid colors including deep blue, ruby red, bright yellow, apricot, deep purple, and even white. Some favorite varieties of violas are Sorbet, Bambini, Blue Heaven, Sunbeam, Jackanapes, and Nellie Britton. Garden centers usually stock violas in early spring, and it's best to purchase already-grown plants rather than starting them from seeds.

Next come the violets!

Two states noted above, Illinois and New Jersey, chose the purple violet (V. Sororia) as their state floral emblems. This species, also known as the Confederate violet, differs from most other violets because it has no runners, making it much more appealing to gardeners since it isn't as invasive. This species has heart-shaped leaves and usually blooms from early spring through summer. Its small white flowers, about 1/2 to 3/4 inches across, are veined with deep violet blue and self-sow profusely. They are an excellent choice for woodland gardens, groundcovers, and prefer shade to full sun.

Bird's-Foot (V. pedata) violets are similar to Confederate violets in that they have no runners. As their name implies, their divided leaf structure resembles a small bird's foot. Their flowers bloom in early spring and summer in shades of violet blue with dark veins. Apparently they are abundant in New Jersey, since this is the species that was designated as that state's floral emblem. Bird's-Foot violets are also native to eastern North America, as are other species.

Several species, including Sweet Violet (V. odorata), spread by long runners and can become very invasive, often spreading to lawns and perennials. Although they make great groundcovers, gardeners should be aware that violet species having runners can become a real nuisance, even to the point of becoming a noxious weed!

And finally the pansies arrive!

One might be led to believe that pansies have been around forever, as they have an old-fashioned look on their little faces. But not so! Pansies were originally hybridized in Europe in the 19th century, and quickly became a very desirable cultivar for gardeners everywhere. Although pansies are perennials, they are treated as biennials or annuals in all USDA zones. Like their viola and violet relatives, they are low-growing plants, but sport much larger flowers often 2 to 3 inches across.

One of the most beloved varieties of pansies are the "faced" pansies. They are easily recognized by markings that resemble a small face in the center of their blossoms. Pansies are found in all hues of colors except green, giving gardeners a heavenly choice to fit most any garden color scheme. Their blossoms have five fragrant, velvety petals that always manage to overlap each other perfectly. Some petals are bi-colored with stripes or blotches, while others are dark solid colors with dainty, light colored edges framing each petal. Their diversity of design and colors are truly outstanding.

Pansies are fabulous for containers, edgings, borders, windowsill pots, or planted in masses of brilliant colors. They are easy to grow and will thrive in full sun or partial shade, depending on location. Fertile, moist soil is recommended for optimum growth and blooming. It's best to purchase pansies already-grown at your garden center in early spring rather than growing them from seeds indoors. These will bloom sooner, giving you almost instant early spring color after planting them. Spent blossoms need to be deadheaded regularly to encourage extended blooming. Quite often, pansies can be found blooming right up until snow flies in colder climates.

Whether you choose to grow violas, violets, or pansies -- remember to pay tribute to the folks in Illinois, Wisconsin, Rhode Island, and New Jersey. For they have bestowed upon them their royal floral crowns that they so deserve.

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