Seabrook On... Improvements and choice in violas and pansies

Leading nurseryman Rowland Smith from Battlesbridge in Essex, speaking to his local church group on bedding plant production, was asked whether he still grows old heritage cultivars.

He enlarged on the steady improvements made by plant breeders and suggested the questioner would not buy a 1960s car but a more recent model. The questioner told him she drives a 1956 car — there is always one in audiences.

His nursery and Meadow Croft Garden Centre still offer Tomato ‘Moneymaker’, but I doubt it would pass a blind taste test against more recent introductions. These were some of the thoughts as I worked along the 496 cultivars in Meadow Croft’s Pansy & Viola Festival earlier this month.

I didn’t see any Viola ‘Maggie Mott’ or ‘Jackanapes’ there this year, but you cannot dispute modern violas are much more free-flowering. All the latest pansies and viola are more uniform, vigorous and in pretty well every colour and colour combination that you could possibly want.

We are now spoilt for choice and it must be difficult for bedding plant growers to make their selections. All the major breeders — Ball Colegrave, Benary, Floranova, Hem Genetics, Rudy Raes, Sakata, S&G and Taiki — have series that will serve the gardener well.

Viola ‘Four Seasons’ has a good spreading habit to suit the edges of containers and hanging baskets. Viola ‘Bel Viso’, ‘Deltini’, ‘Flower Power’, ‘Rocky’ and ‘Sorbet XP’ are very free-flowering and the bigger ranges come in an unbelievably wide range of colours.

Among the pansies, I was told ‘Panola XP’ is a good series for low-light autumn to early-spring sales. What a pity this was not given the name "Pansy Universal 2015" or "Pansy Universal Improved", so we retained the very well established and accepted name for autumn to spring flowering.

Among the novelties Prudac has six different colours in its Pansy ‘Tasty’ series. My taste buds are no longer very discerning so I will leave you to pass judgement on these.

Thompson & Morgan has the eye-catching small-flowered Viola × williamsii ‘Bunny Ears’, with the two back red petals sticking up like a rabbit’s ears. It did stand out but none had been picked up by consumers at the time of my visit.

When it comes to fragrance, Michael Smith detected strong scent on Viola ‘Bel Viso Yellow’ when gathering up plants on a warm sunny morning. I was attracted by perfume when approaching them but could not be sure it all came from this group.

Peter Seabrook is a gardening writer and broadcaster

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