Pansies And Violas: Lots Of Great Breeding

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Slideshow: Pansies & Violas

While the rest of us moan and worry about whether anyone will spend money again, plant breeders have still not forgotten how to make new genetics. We can debate whether or not there are too many new plants on the market, but new will always be important and new plants will continue to be the fuel for the future.

A group of plants that never seem to run out of breeders are pansies and violas. They have been reinvented and tweaked for the last 30 years, and while tweakers are not in short supply, unbiased data in regard to their landscape performance is.

Because these plants are extraordinarily important in many parts of the country, and nowhere more so than in the Southeastern United States, we reinitiated trials at the Gardens at UGA in Fall 2008. We did not do an industry-wide trial because we did not have the manpower. We did, however, invite three companies–Syngenta, Ball Horticultural Company and Sakata–to participate.

In Fall 2008, we received hundreds of plugs, transplanted them to Ellepots and then planted them in the research gardens in November. Evaluation began in February 2009. Although there is much more data to gather, some of the trends of the pansy/viola market and some exciting new entries are clear. You can see more at www.uga.edu/ugatrial.

Violas Versus Pansies: A Soapbox

Every year we’ve trialed pansies and violas. Our garden data shouts that violas are better performers, fill in faster, look better earlier and are more colorful than pansies. Every year! This year is no different.

Yet, viola sales still lag ridiculously behind pansy sales in this country. I am at a loss as to why, except that the adage “bigger is better” seems to be gospel when consumers are comparing violas and pansies on the retail bench.

Viola breeding is simply too good. This is not to say pansies are bad, but we are not taking sufficient advantage of the genetics of violas.

If asked the difference between violas and pansies, most consumers would either draw a blank or say violas have smaller flowers. Savvy consumers might actually know violas, for the most part, are better performers in the landscape, but that would be a small fraction.

So What Does This Mean?

Based on our trials, and more importantly on my conversations with my daughter Heather and other consumers who walk through the garden, here is what my extensive research has shown:

- Trying to teach the consumer the differences between a viola and a pansy is like kicking a dead horse. Let’s move on.
Similarly, doing nothing is not going to improve viola sales. Perhaps we need to think like a consumer instead of a breeder and fix the problem.

- If the word “viola” is not penetrating the market, let’s borrow from the rose and petunia people and call them floribunda pansies. Not sexy, but at least instructional.

- Violas need signage to attract a person’s eyes and wallet. If violas are marketed similarly to a floribunda rose, people will take notice and understand the differences. Use the series names by all means, but Endurio or Panola or Rebellina alone don’t cut it with Heather.

- Leave “Viola” as the genus name. Consumers just get confused.

Perhaps I am just a frustrated market guy masquerading as a plant guy. But, actually, I am simply a little frustrated watching exceptional viola breeding being ignored by consumers in this country. I want Heather to buy pansies, and to choose the floribunda ones.

Allan Armitage (allan@greenhouse grower.com) is a professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Georgia, Athens, Ga.

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