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Question of the Week © 2017 Mike McGrath
Note: Hundreds of Mike's informative articles are available (in alphabetical order!) right here at the Gardens Alive website. To find Mike's answers to your specific garden problem, Click here and find your topic (like Weeds, Worms, Rhododendrons...) in our complete alphabetical archive of Questions of the Week.
Can you Grow Violets Indoors?!
Q. Every spring a portion of our lawn is a carpet of wild violets. I love it, but our landlord doesn't. He hates all flowers and wants a sterile lawn. (A neighbor planted flowers that climbed up her trellis—a feat she accomplished despite having only one hand—and one day she came home to discover that he'd ripped out the flowers and trashed the trellis!)
To the point: I love plants, especially violets. Is there a way to grow them indoors? Once the lawn is mowed, they'll be gone until next year. I see questions in your archives from people who want to get rid of them - why? They're so very beautiful!
---- Cynthia in Nashville
A. I had just come in from picking a pint of wild violet flowers for my wife when Cynthia's plea arrived, so I had to 'pick' it for this week's question.
Why was I picking the pretty little flowers? For my wife to eat, just like pansies! All members of the Viola family—wild violets, Johnny jump-ups, violas and pansies—are edible; and the best food source of rutin, a hard-to-find nutrient that strengthens capillary walls and thus reduces or prevents the disfiguring look of varicose or 'spider' veins. I've been growing pansies for my wife ever since I learned that fact as a medical reporter back in the [gulp] 1980s—when live pansies were only available in the Spring. But after a few years, special 'winter pansies'; 'icicle pansies' started showing up in garden centers in the early fall as well.
'Special' my Sainted Aunt Eleanor—they're the exact same plants you'd buy in the Spring! The fall plants were just started by growers in the summer as opposed to the winter. But it's a great deal to be able to buy them in the Fall. In many climates, those plants are going to flower all fall, survive the winter and then bloom again the following spring, "until", as the classic line goes, "summer heat does them in." Pansies are super cold-hardy, but like peas, lettuce and spinach, they are cool weather plants that burn up (or in the case of greens, bolt) in the summer heat.
Now, do the wild violets currently adorning our landscapes have a different life cycle than cultivated pansies? Yes and no.
Wild violets appear in the Spring and last a month or two depending on the weather. Like Spring bulbs, the cooler the air, the longer the flowers will last. Then, just like cultivated pansies, they vanish when the weather gets too warm. But unlike pansies, which are true annuals, wild violets are herbaceous perennials that retreat to their safety of their root systems in the off-season—sometimes reappearing for a little show in the Fall. (Not every Fall and never as big a show as in the Spring, but generally enough to decorate a few salads.)
Now, it sounds like our listener in Nashville only wants her violets for their looks, which is good. Because in her situation, I would not advise any eating. If her landlord is a real weed fighting fiend, he's likely to be dousing the turf with massive amounts of herbicides…
…to which wild violets are essentially immune. The fragile-looking flowers are unaffected by any chemical herbicide a homeowner can legally buy. And there's no need to attack them. They're ephemeral! They provide beautiful color in the Spring, food for humans—and caterpillars that will become beautiful butterflies—and then disappear after a month or two.
Now, am I going to attempt to answer her actual question? Or just keep dancing?
I do know all the moves to "Ain't too Proud to Beg", but will attempt to answer this tough question anyway—after yet another digression: The best answer is to buy pansies and grow them in a window box or some other kind of container. Pansies come in all different shapes and sizes, and the small-flowered ones look a lot like violets.
If she has no space outdoors? (Or the fear that a container will be attacked), she could grow a flat of small flowered pansies under a four-foot-long shoplight—or one of the new LED plant lights--inside. (Look for lights that produce the most lumens.) Pansies, for instance, might actually live longer indoors if they're protected from summer heat and their flowers picked promptly. (A plant whose flowers ARE faithfully picked will keep pumping new ones out.)
But what about wild violets; CAN she grow those indoors?
We know from our friends at the Philadelphia Flower Show that you can grow pretty much any plant at any time of year if you have the resources. And what's to lose? Wild violets have large underground root systems. If she digs up a big clump and pots it before Vlad the Impaler gets to the lawn, it might well bloom inside if given the right conditions.
It's hard to say what the flowers will do in summer and winter if they're indoors under bright light and in cool air, but it sounds like a fun project. And if they go seasonally dormant and you keep the greenery alive, they should rebloom at some point. Just don't let that landlord see you digging them up and leaving craters in his precious lawn!