Annuals Gardening

2017: The Year of the Pansy

Pensées (Viola x wittrockiana) ‘Majestic Giants Mix’. Photo National Garden Bureau

Each year the National Garden Bureau, a non-profit organization promoting the pleasures of home gardening, selects one bulb, one annual, one perennial and one edible plant to celebrate. It’s a great way to discover a new plant or to learn a bit more about a plant you may already be growing.

Here’s the second of 2017’s four plants, the annual we call the pansy.


The Johnny-jump-up (Viola tricolor) is one of the ancestors of today’s pansy. Note the “whiskers”.

The garden pansy (Viola x wittrockiana) doesn’t exist in the wild. It’s a hybrid plant developed back in the 19th century, mostly from three Eurasian species of wild pansy: V. lutea, with yellow flowers, V. altaica, with violet flowers, and especially the well-known Johnny-jump-up most gardeners know, V. tricolor. The garden pansy differs from the wild species by its larger overall size and much larger flowers. However, if a garden pansy is allowed to self-sow, which it will do quite willingly, it tends to return fairly quickly to the appearance of a wild pansy.

As for the origin of the name pansy, it’s from French. Pensée simply means thought and the plant picked up this name because the flower of the wild pansy, which bends slightly downwards and bears whiskers (actually, nectar guides), was said to look like the face of a man lost in thought. With the adoption of the name pansy for thought, the flower became the symbol of remembrance and commemoration.

In the language of flowers, the pansy of course means “I’m thinking of you”!

Violet or Pansy?

Violets and pansies are close relatives and share the same generic name: Viola. But they belong to two different subgenera. So how do you tell the two apart?

Violet: 2 upper petals, 3 lower petals.

Violets (Viola subgenus viola) have flowers composed of 2 upper petals and 3 lower petals. The flowers are usually small, with the upper petals leaning backwards, and they mainly bloom in the spring. The leaves are often heart-shaped, although they may also be lobed.

Pansy: 4 upper petals, 1 lower petal.

Pansies (Viola subgenus Melanium) have flowers with 4 upper petals and only one lower petal. The flower appears flattened, with all the petals on the same plane. They’re much longer blooming than violets. Indeed, many pansies flower from spring to late fall. Finally, their leaves are smaller with crenate margins.

Pansy or Viola?

Viola (at left), pansy (at right).

Here things get more complicated. The small-flowered plants gardeners call violas are definitely on the pansy side of the pansy/violet divide (i.e. they belong to the subgenus Melanium). The term “viola” was adopted to distinguish smaller-flowering pansies from larger-flowered garden pansies. Also, since many violas are the result of crosses with alpine species, they tend to be hardier and longer-lived than garden pansies.

In general, then, if the plant has large flowers and is treated as an annual bedding plant, it’s a pansy, and if it has smaller flowers and is sold as a perennial, it’s a viola.

History of the Pansy

This 1902 catalog shows that great-grandma’s pansies were already much like those of today.

It’s generally accepted that Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennet (1785-1861), daughter of the Earl of Tankerville, created, with the help of her gardener, William Richardson, the first garden pansies early in the 19th century. She had built up a collection of wild pansies of all possible colors and began making crosses to increase the choice. She first presented her hybrids in 1813 and they were immediately adopted by gardeners.

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Pansies with dark blotches were first launched by Lord Gambier in 1839. This one is however a modern variety: ‘Matrix Solar Flare’.

However, at about the same time, Lord John James Gambier, a British officer, was also working with wild pansies, and also with his gardener, William Thompson. He set out to give the flowers a fuller appearance by choosing to cross plants with broader petals that overlapped, resulting in the almost moon-shaped flower so typical of today’s pansy. In 1839, he also produced the first pansy that had blotches instead of whiskers, ‘Medora’, a characteristic that is still seen today.

Pansies have been popular garden plants since the mid 1800s and remain among the top three annuals grown in North America.

A Wide Variety

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Pansies come in a wide range of colours. Here ‘Nature’ mix. Photo National Garden Bureau.

Do you have a favorite color? Si so, you’ll surely find a pansy to match it. Few other flowers offer such a wide color range: purple, blue, white, pink, red, orange, yellow, green, even almost black. Pansies can be unicolor, bicolor, or tricolor, and bear blotches, whiskers, stripes or no markings at all… but they always have a small yellow eye. Some have wavy or fringed petals; others are fragrant.

Pansies are typically classified into 4 categories: large-flowered (3 to 4 inches/8 to 10 cm in diameter), medium-flowered (2 to 3 inches/5 to 8 cm in diameter), multiflora (flowers from 1 to 2 inches/2.5 to 5 cm in diameter), and the most recent category, trailing, that is, pansy plants that spread up to 2 feet (60 cm) in diameter. This latter are making pansies popular in hanging baskets.

Growing Pansies Hot or Cold

Though nurseries sell pansies as annuals, they’re actually short-lived perennials and will overwinter in fairly cold climates, down to hardiness zone 4.

Pansies actually do best under cool summers: they positively thrive in many parts of Scandinavia and Canada, for example.

Pansies used in a winter display at Disneyland.

In regions with mild winters (zones 9 to 11), pansies are typically used as winter annuals. At Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California, for example, gardeners use them abundantly in their displays from October through April, and then pull them out and replace them for the summer with annuals more resistant to the coming heat.

In temperate regions, though, most pansies are planted in spring for summer bloom. As they tolerate cold nights and even light frost, it’s best to plant them early, before the other summer annuals, about 3 or 4 weeks before the last frost date.

In the right climate, pansies will remain in bloom until temperatures drop to near freezing in late autumn. In regions with hot summers, though, their flowering typically slows down or stops in summer until cooler temperatures resume in the autumn. To avoid this, gardeners in hot-summer areas should plant pansies in partial shade rather than full sun and also mulch them well (mulch helps keep the soil cool).

Pansies aren’t much bothered by cold or snow.

There are also extra-hardy pansies designed for fall planting, like the ‘Ice’, ‘Icicle’ and ‘Snow Angel’ series. The idea is to plant them early in the fall so they’ll bloom abundantly until it gets really cold (when soil temperatures dip below 45?F/7?C), then they stop for the winter and begin to bloom again in the spring when soil temperatures again reach 45?F/7?C, just about when narcissus and tulips come into bloom. These pansies are usually hardy to zone 4.

General Pansy Care

Pansies prefer a rich, moist, well-drained soil. Space them about 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) apart (18 inches/45 cm for trailing pansies). Water them regularly over the first two weeks so they settle in. As mentioned above, the use of mulch to keep the soil moist and fresh is highly recommended.

If you don’t pull out your pansies in the fall, you’ll discover most will survive the winter and bloom for a second year. They rarely bloom a third season, but often self-sow to a certain degree, providing flowers for several years. As mentioned above, self-sowing pansies tend to gradually return to the small-flowered wild form.

Pansies From Seed

1914 pack of pansy seeds.

The vast majority of gardeners buy nursery-grown pansies in flats as bedding plants in the spring, but there is no reason you can’t grow them from seed.

Sow them indoors about 8 weeks before the average last frost date in a pot or tray of moist potting soil, covering the seeds very lightly with 1/8 inch (3 mm) of mix.

If possible, place the container in the refrigerator for 4 to 7 days, then after this cold treatment, move it to a fairly cool spot, about 65 to 70?F (18 to 21?C).

Pansies are unusual in that they germinate best in darkness. You can therefore put them in a basement or cupboard until they sprout. I just put the seed tray inside a black plastic garbage bag. As soon as you see small seedlings come up, usually after about 10 to 20 days, move to a spot where they get bright light.

Even after germination, though, pansy seedlings prefer cooler conditions than most other annual and vegetable seedlings: 65?F (18?C) or less. You could, for example, place them near an east window, in a cold frame or in an unheated greenhouse. Keep the soil moist.

As soon as the nights start to remain above 40?F (5?C), start to acclimatize your seedlings to outdoor conditions.

Finally, it is also possible to sow pansies directly in the garden… for next year’s bloom! Do so in June or July.

Fun Facts About Pansies

Pansy flowers are edible: here, ‘Cool Wave Yellow’. Photo National Garden Bureau
  • Pansy flowers are edible. They can be eaten as is (they have a slightly minty taste) or you can make sugared pansies by coating them in egg white and dipping them in icing sugar.
  • Pansies have many common names including heartease, heart’s delight, tickle-my-fancy, Johnny-jump-up, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, come-and-cuddle-me, three faces in a hood, monkey face, kiss-her-in-the-pantry, peeping Tom and love-in-idleness.
  • In general, yellow and blue pansies are the most fragrant. They are at their most highly scented in the morning.
  • The botanical name given to the garden pansy, x wittrockiana, honors Swedish botanist Veit Brecher Wittrock (1839-1914) who did a great deal of research on the genus Viola.
  • The Greeks used pansy flowers to make a love potion. William Shakespeare recalls this in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene I, saying about heartsease (the pansy) that “the juice of it, on sleeping eyelids laid, will make a man or woman madly dote upon the next live creature that it sees.”
  • In days of yore, pansy syrup was used to treat venereal diseases.
  • Johnny-jump-ups (V.  tricolor), with their 3-colored flowers, were taken by early Christians as a symbol of the Holy Trinity.
  • In German, the pansy is called Stiefmütterchen (little stepmother). The fat lower petal represents the stepmother, the plump petals on each side are her own well-fed daughters and the two thin upper petals are the two neglected stepdaughters.

Now that you know so much more about pansies, I hope you’ll try your hand at growing these fabulous flowers this spring!

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