Violaceae – The Violet Family

Viola tricolor, or ‘wild pansy’


When you think of a pansy, you likely think of a pretty ornamental flower found in many gardens and garden centres, probably with a distinctive ‘face’ pattern adding to their charm.  Its name in fact comes from the French word ‘pensée’, or thought, due to the ‘pensive’ looking face pattern. But it may surprise you that pansies of all colours and patterns are actually all originally from one species Viola tricolor, which has been bred with other flowers in the same genus to form hybrids.


Viola odorata or Sweet Violet (Photo by Fritz Geller-Grimm)

Originally called heartsease before they were cultivated into the familiar pansies, they belong to the violet family ‘Violaceae’ which only has one genus (Viola) in the UK.  Garden pansies are derived from hybrids among Viola species, such as Viola odorata, which, as the name might suggest has a distinctive and sweet odour or perfume, which interestingly desensistizes the nose; a second sniff will have no effect.  Viola odorata sometimes hybridises naturally form plants that are difficult to name. All of these beautiful plants flower between April and September, ranging in colour from purple, to blue, yellow and white. They can be recognised from their unique flower shape and from a rear facing, nectar containing capsule pointing from behind the flower.

Other species known to occur on campus include Viola arvensis, commonly known as the field pansy, this is an annual species and has been found growing on soil heaps but it is unknown whether its still around. The early Dog Violet (Viola reichenbachiana) is also found, but just as often missed due to early flowering!  Common Dog Violet can be seen in the shade of trees around the Pepper lane entrance.  

 Image Credits:

Viola tricolor –

Viola odorata –




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